George Orwell, internment and the illusion of liberty.
One has got to remember, too, just what imprisonment means in Spain at this moment. Apart from the frightful overcrowding of the temporary jails, the insanitary conditions, the lack of light and air and the filthy food, there is the complete absence of anything that we should regard as legality. There is, for instance, no nonsense about Habeas Corpus. According to the present law, or at any rate the present practice, you can be imprisoned for an indefinite time not merely without being tried but even without being charged; and until you have been charged the authorities can, if they choose, keep you 'incommunicado'--that is, without the right to communicate with a lawyer or anyone else in the outside world. (11:58) (1)
This passage, from 'Eye-Witness in Barcelona', is characteristic of George Orwell's response to the administration of justice during the Spanish Civil War. Reflecting on his experiences soon after leaving Barcelona in June 1937 Orwell recorded the brutalities of the judicial system, but also highlighted the warping of legality implicit in the emergency regime. During his six months in Spain Orwell witnessed the mass detention without charge or trial of his comrades in the Partido Obrero de Unification Marxista (POUM) by the Communist-dominated government, and narrowly avoided joining them after being indicted for espionage and high treason only three weeks after his departure. These experiences not only had a profound effect on Orwell's politics, but also developed his expectations for the just operation of law during a crisis. As the above passage demonstrates, Orwell's response to the Spanish crisis revealed as much, if not more, about his thinking on English law as it did the injustices of war-torn Barcelona. Addressing his English audience, Orwell's inclusion of 'we' and 'you' is indicative. It emphasises that his judgements on Spain were conditioned by the standards of English law.
For Orwell, internment without charge, trial, or legal representation was incompatible with English principles of justice and the rule of law. They should, he implies, find no place in the English judicial system. Yet in a little over two years the British Government would enact the Emergency Powers (Defence) Act 1939 and set in motion the intrusive Defence Regulations of the Second World War. (2) In the interests of national security during the crisis, Parliament would afford the State the power to direct, control and intern British citizens at its almost unfettered discretion, a power already available under the Royal Prerogative for enemy aliens. The broad powers of regulation 18B, one of the most controversial aspects of the emergency powers regime, uncannily echoed measures that drew Orwell's sternest criticism in Spain. (3) On his return from Spain Orwell relentlessly campaigned for justice for those interned without charge or trial; in the early years of the Second World War Orwell's response was markedly different. Orwell's relative silence on wartime internment in Britain is conspicuous both in contrast to his time in Spain and his popular reputation as a resolute defender of civil liberties. This article examines whether, in the unique context of the crisis of the early war, Orwell viewed otherwise fundamental English civil liberties as a relative concept. It considers the possible reasons for Orwell's toleration of wartime internment and seeks to account for his change of position in light of his underlying faith in the democratic legacy of England.
As the British government prepared the Home Front in the summer of 1939 Orwell composed his 'Diary of Events Leading Up to the War', a selection of reports on contemporary events primarily collated from the Press and the BBC. The diary, and particularly the sources Orwell references, confirm that he was fully aware of the progress and scope of the new Emergency Powers Act. (4) Specifically, Orwell records 'clauses allowing preventive arrest, search without warrant & trial in camera'--all provisions he criticised as repressive during the Spanish Civil War (11:399). This diary raises an expectation that he would fully engage in the public debate about the expansion of emergency powers as the war progressed. It is therefore striking, as he kept two further wartime diaries replete with references to the daily newspapers, that he was unforthcoming with any criticism of internment in England at its peak in the early 1940s. Orwell's relative silence regarding internment--particularly in the first year of the war--can be explored through three interconnected factors: the dilemma resulting from his support for a war which Orwell foresaw would require the curtailment of civil liberties; self-censorship; and, increasingly, tacit support for some use of emergency powers in wartime.
Until the middle of 1939, Orwell resolutely positioned himself against British involvement in a European war. Spain had made him acutely concerned about the 'fascising processes which war-preparation entails' and he worried that war would inevitably impinge upon otherwise sacrosanct liberties (11:240). This sense of inevitability can be clearly discerned from Orwell's main literary product of this period, the novel Coming Upfor Air. The book, which laments the destruction by the modern world of a safe and secure English way of life, conveys a clear warning that war was both certain and imminent. The protagonist, George Bowling, concludes:
I've enough sense to see that the old life we're used to is being sawn off at the roots. I can feel it happening. I can see the war that's coming and I can see the after-war, the food-queues and the secret police and the loudspeakers telling you what to think. (5)
Many of the novel's images of an encroaching totalitarian society are of ubiquitous, State-sanctioned methods of law enforcement. Bowling frequently imagines a justice system predicated on 'secret cells where the electric light burns night and day, and the detectives watch you while you sleep'. (6) Bowling's pessimism here is recognisably Orwell's, drawn from his experiences of totalitarian law enforcement in Spain. A sense emerges in Coming Up for Air that the methods of Hitler and Stalin would necessarily extend to England once war began. However, while Bowling resigned himself to the deteriorating situation, Orwell did not. At the time, Orwell was actively agitating against the war and writing the novel as a warning clearly contributes to this programme. Still, in early 1939, Orwell had no practical proposal for how to escape the fascising processes that so concerned him beyond opposing war at all costs.
In his opposition to the war, Orwell could comfortably and consistently argue against 'war-preparations' that would encourage authoritarian rule at home (11:340). However, in August 1939 the Nazi-Soviet pact altered Orwell's position. In his Autumn 1940 essay 'My Country Right or Left' Orwell recounts how a dream on the eve of the pact revealed that because he was 'patriotic at heart' he would 'not sabotage or act against [his] own side, would support the war [and] would fight in it if possible' (12:271). As there was now 'no real alternative between resisting Hitler and surrendering', Orwell's patriotism required him to support war 'once England was in a serious jam' (12:271). Newsinger describes this dream as an 'apocryphal story' and it is notable that Orwell's conversion to a pro-war position is first publicised in a retrospective account published a year after the outbreak of war. (7) While, as will be discussed later, his personal actions are consistent with a pro-war position from September 1939 onwards, Orwell's published work does not demonstrate the same conviction. Indeed, his failure to articulate a coherent rationale for his change of heart is symptomatic of the uncertainty which characterises Orwell from late 1939 onwards. Orwell's first published work of the war, 'Inside the Whale', demonstrates that his concerns regarding the potential 'fascising' of England had not been fully resolved. He worries that the naivety of the English people, derived from a legacy of safety and security, could allow authoritarian measures to be easily established. Yet, despite referencing 'imprisonment without trial' as one of a number of totalitarian methods which could appear, Orwell does not acknowledge that such measures had been recently introduced in England (12:103). This suggests that Orwell, while uncomfortable with measures such as internment, remained unsure how to respond to the need for intrusive security measures at this time. In this Orwell was certainly not unique. The introduction of the emergency regime forced many across the political spectrum to reconcile their support for the war effort with unpalatable incursions into civil liberties. While the Emergency Powers (Defence) Bill was opposed by only four MPs, many voiced their unease at the measures and emphasised that they could only be supported based on the necessity of the time. (8) As Liberal MP Dingle Foot--who later raised a motion to annul the Defence Regulations in October 1939--conceded: 'when we are at war it is unavoidable that the Government of the day should be entrusted with extraordinary powers'. (9)
Orwell's own sense of uncertainty was compounded by his inability to find a purposeful role in the war, at least until he joined the BBC in 1941. Orwell quickly volunteered for war work but his offer was not taken up, leaving him increasingly frustrated. Orwell knew his ongoing battle with tuberculosis made active service unlikely, but he struggled to comprehend why he could not undertake 'clerical work' (12:199). One potential explanation that preoccupied him was the possibility that there was a black mark against his name, which would help to explain his reticence to comment on the government's management of the war at home. Orwell recognised that the State would be reluctant to employ 'politically unreliable' people (12:199) and, as the war progressed, seemingly leaving him behind, Orwell felt increasingly confident that his involvement in the Spanish Civil War had resulted in a 'police record' or 'political dossier' at Scotland Yard (12:188; 12:355). The declassification of Orwell's Special Branch and MI5 files revealed that his suspicions were well-founded. (10) Special Branch opened a file on Orwell in the late 1920s, sharing the particulars with MI5 in 1936 following Orwell's attendance at Communist meetings in Wigan. Both files are relatively brief and reflect the intermittent interest paid to Orwell by the security agencies. (11) It is nonetheless clear that Orwell's idiosyncratic politics made him frustratingly difficult to categorise. In a revealing record of a telephone conversation between the two agencies an MI5 officer witheringly records their assessment:
I gathered that the good Sergeant [at Special Branch] was rather at a loss as to how he could describe [Orwell's] rather individual line, hence the expression 'advanced Communist Views'. This fits in with the picture we have of BLAIR [alias] ORWELL. It is evident from his recent writings--'The Lion and the Unicorn' and his contribution to Gollancz's symposium 'The Betrayal of the Left'--that he does not hold with the Communist Party nor they with him. (12)
It is notable that Orwell's published work was crucial to the security assessment made about him. It would have been reasonable, and correct, for Orwell to assume that the content of his writings could influence his ability to secure government war work. It would therefore be understandable for him to have remained circumspect, at least in public, in criticising government measures designed to prosecute the war. Indeed, Orwell was most outspoken on the dangers of the emergency legislation only after he left the BBC in 1943 and was no longer seeking government work.
In June 1940, however, Orwell learnt through the War Office that 'it was no longer held against a man to have fought in the Spanish Civil War' (12:208). This may have released him to be more vocal in his revolutionary socialist aspirations for England in 'My Country Right or Left' and The Lion and the Unicorn, both composed shortly afterwards. Orwell may have felt more comfortable composing targeted criticism of the government, provided it was evident that his criticism was designed to assist, rather than undermine, the war effort. The strong critique embedded in The Lion and the Unicorn suggests that self-censorship was of diminishing concern for Orwell from the summer of 1940. However, as a memorandum concerning Orwell from the BBC's Director of Empire Services in June 1941 demonstrates, Orwell still worried that the legacy of Spain 'could be held against him'. (13) Orwell's motives throughout this period are complex, often conflicting, and consequently difficult to decipher; self-censorship can therefore only be considered as one possible factor for his reluctance to comment, rather than the definitive reason.
As the war entered its first full year Orwell's writings move away from the uncertainty that characterised his initial response towards more confident support for the war. This new dynamic reveals a third possible explanation for Orwell's reluctance to criticise internment: he was prepared to support it in certain circumstances. 'Notes on the Way', published in Spring 1940, provides the first indication that Orwell had begun to reconcile his support for the war with the inevitable 'fascising measures' he previously feared. Here, Orwell repositions such measures as necessary for the successful prosecution of the war:
When war has started there is no such thing as neutrality. All activities are war activities. Whether you want to or not, you are obliged to help either your own side or the enemy. The Pacifists, Communists, Fascists, etc. are at this moment helping Hitler. They have a perfect right to do so, provided they believe that Hitler's cause is the better and are willing to take the consequences. (12:123-4)
Orwell is clear that war compels one to take a position. In a democracy, it is both acceptable and right that opposition should be heard, but this should be accompanied by a realistic appreciation of the consequences. Orwell's rhetoric also recognises the immediate consequences for those opposed to the British war effort: alignment with the enemy. In this sense, his reasoning foreshadows the main political and public narrative used to justify the extension of internment in May 1940; namely that fervent opposition to the war could not go unchecked when England was seriously threatened.
Many socialists and civil libertarians were undoubtedly troubled, as Orwell was, by the Government's management of potentially seditious individuals. Those on the Left who debated the acceptability, and necessity, of supporting the emergency measures introduced by the Government struggled with this conundrum. Some instinctively railed against the introduction of measures like internment. James Maxton, the leader of the Independent Labour Party (of which Orwell was a member during his time in Spain), spoke out forcefully against the Defence Regulations:
The evil of this legislation is that it gives a Government power to put into prison any person who is politically objectionable to them, and certainly it can prohibit any public expression of political views that are antagonistic to the view of the Government at the moment. (14)
Like Orwell, Maxton had campaigned against the use of such powers by the Spanish government in the civil war; indeed, in 1937 when Orwell considered how to assist his imprisoned friend Georges Kopp he felt reassured by Maxton's efforts to secure justice for the detainees (11:64). Maxton's opposition to the British Defence Regulations thus remained consistent with his pre-war stance on civil liberties arising from the Spanish crisis. Significantly, Maxton and the ILP coupled their dissatisfaction with the emergency measures with a wider anti-war stance. As already discussed, following the Nazi-Soviet pact Orwell found such a position untenable. Furthermore, as the leader of a rump opposition, protected by parliamentary privilege, Maxton could remain secure in his position without a realistic concern that he would be called on to enact the policies he forwarded. Less certain of his position was the prominent academic and Labour party affiliate Harold Laski, who co-edited the Left Book Club before the war (to which Orwell contributed The Road to Wigan Pier). Similar to Maxton, Laski's initial response to the introduction of emergency powers was disapproving, emphasising in a 1940 Fabian Society pamphlet that 'The Government should have no power, in any case, of preventive arrest and detention'. (15) Slowly, however, Laski came to the view that centring such powers in the hands of a wartime government was an unavoidable necessity. By 1942, with the Labour party now firmly part of the National Government, Laski argued that:
A state at war which is not fully armed against its Quislings is, as the examples of Norway and Holland make manifest, already on the high road to defeat. The necessity, therefore, of concentrating immense powers in a government waging total war is beyond discussion. (16)
A necessary measure
For Orwell, it seems, the hard-headed, practical approach favoured by Laski was more persuasive than the ideological consistency of Maxton. The impossibility of neutrality in war could be viewed as Orwell's maxim during 1940. It is certainly in keeping with the national mood, especially after the British evacuation of Dunkirk and Hitler's occupation of Northern Europe. This thinking permeates his published work and, as discussed above, underpins his first public account of his conversion to the war effort in 'My Country Right or Left'. The sentiment explicitly reappears in The Lion and the Unicorn in which Orwell reuses his phrasing from 'Notes on the Way' --'There is no such thing as neutrality in war'--and reaffirms that 'in practice one must help one side or the other' (12:431). Orwell began the piece in the summer of 1940, when internment under 18B peaked. (17) Internment policy concerning enemy aliens had also recently been broadened, which dramatically swelled the number of internees. (18) It is, therefore, unsurprising that in The Lion and the Unicorn Orwell explicitly focuses on the fate of Fifth Columnists and enemy aliens.
The precise timing of the composition of the work is, as Hollis rightly notes, of particular significance. (19) Orwell begins it 'to the tune of the German bombs' and he remains clear that invasion remained a distinct possibility, asserting that 'anyone able to read a map knows what deadly danger we are in' (12:409). However, the hysteria that had characterised (and effectively sanctioned) the extension of internment policies in May had, by the summer, marginally subsided, with many in the Press and Parliament now seriously criticising the blanket internment of enemy aliens. (20) In line with the changing public attitude, Orwell reflects on the extent of internment in England:
During the last six months there has been much talk of 'the Fifth Column'. From time to time obscure lunatics have been jailed for making speeches in favour of Hitler, and large numbers of German refugees have been interned, a thing which has almost certainly done us great harm in Europe. It is of course obvious that the idea of a large, organised army of Fifth Columnists suddenly appearing on the streets with weapons in their hands, as in Holland and Belgium, is ridiculous. Nevertheless a Fifth Column danger does exist. (12:416)
It is clear from this passage that Orwell did not support the disproportionate use of wartime detention and was genuinely concerned by the internment of refugees and jailing of inconsequential 'obscure lunatics'. Indeed, Orwell chose to reiterate the un-English nature of indiscriminate internment in the concluding paragraph to The Lion and the Unicorn, where he argues that England 'is not being true to herself while the refugees who have sought our shores are penned up in concentration camps' (12:432). However, tellingly, it seems that such criticism did not extend to the political decision to intern potential Fifth Columnists, particularly those affiliated with the British Union of Fascists.
Orwell explains in the essay that the 'Fifth Column danger' emanates from groups which would 'make things very much easier' to negotiate surrender, arguing that Mosley's Blackshirts posed the most 'serious danger, because of the footing they probably possess in the armed forces' (12:417). It is, however, what Orwell chooses not to say that is most revealing. In electing not to critique the internment of fascists in a piece which questions other internment policies one can infer that Orwell was not averse to action taken against the British Union; this is supported by his assertion that the Blackshirts posed a genuine threat. Indeed, reflecting on this period in August 1945, Orwell makes clear he supported the political use of 18B during the crisis of the early war. Remembering the detention of Sir Oswald Mosley, Orwell concludes:
In 1940 it was perfectly right to intern Mosley, whether or not he had committed any technical crime. We were fighting for our lives and could not allow a possible quisling to go free. (17:258)
This passage reveals that Orwell not only accepted the government's right to detain Mosley, but also that he supported his pre-emptive detention without evidence of criminal conduct.
In The Lion and the Unicorn, Orwell's denunciation of the indiscriminate internment of enemy aliens is, in many ways, unremarkable given the contemporary public sentiment; it is also consistent with his position during the Spanish Civil War, and with his posthumous reputation as a stalwart defender of civil liberties. His failure to condemn the actions taken against suspected fascists in England therefore appears somewhat inconsistent with both his criticism of similar measures in this piece and his pre-war views. It was, however, a view which echoes that of others on the Left, like Laski, who recognised that the immediate fascist threat required some compromise of domestic civil liberties. In late 1940 Orwell was prepared to accept a defence regulation which not only authorised internment, but, in its procedural operation, had serious implications for civil liberties in England. Yet, the suppression of the British Union in 1940 was a direct assault on a fascist organisation--a far cry from the detention of Orwell's POUM comrades in Spain. Orwell had a longstanding antipathy to fascist parties and his acquiescence in the suppression of the British Union may have derived from political prejudice. Hitler's military successes generated a surge in anti-fascist feeling in England; indeed, Mass Observation identified that Mosley's internment in May 1940 met with overwhelming support, noting that 'very seldom have observers found such a high degree of approval for anything'. (21) In line with the public mood, Orwell may have sensed an opportunity to take decisive action against what, in his own words, was a dangerous political movement (12:416-17).
Turning to Orwell's publications of 1941, when he began to articulate a more coherent thesis for his support for the war, a further explanation for Orwell's position emerges. This is grounded in the acceptance by Orwell of the historical context within which he was writing. Now fully committed to the war--both publicly and in private--Orwell acknowledged that one must accept the curtailment of certain liberties in wartime, however unpalatable that may be. Orwell concedes, in March 1941, that even the UK and the USA, as the only two non-totalitarian states capable of waging prolonged war, would 'have to tamper with their democratic institutions in order to make themselves efficient for war' (12:440). The following month, in an article entitled 'Will Freedom Die with Capitalism?', Orwell explicitly articulated that this tampering would necessarily extend to civil liberties:
of course there is curtailment of the rights of labour, press censorship, political persecution of a petty kind, a general diminution of liberty. But that is war. One has to compare the British government not with some impossible ideal but with that of any government at war, whatever its colour. (12:463; original emphasis)
This is a comment of its time, and it is the argument most frequently forwarded by legal commentators, newspaper columnists and politicians alike. (22) Voices like Maxton who argued for unwavering commitment to civil liberties were seemingly overwhelmed by the realities of war. Thus Simpson, in his authoritative account of 18B, unsurprisingly concludes that 'there never developed a strong principled objection to the regulation as a gross invasion of civil liberty; no doubt the explanation lies in the desperate conditions in which it was principally employed'. (23)
A difference in outlook
What underpins Orwell's justification of internment is the comparative reasonableness of the English response. In 'Will Freedom Die with Capitalism?' Orwell contextualised his defence of the British government by comparing it--inevitably --with the regime he witnessed in Spain. He concludes that the Spanish Republican Government 'outraged every principle of Democracy far more grossly than our own Government has done' (12:463). While England was still falling short of the 'impossible ideal', it was markedly better than the alternatives. This sentiment is nowhere more clearly articulated than in Orwell's review of Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon. (24) Koestler was interned in France in 1939 (due to his Communist past) and again in England in 1940 owing to his status as an 'unlawful alien'. (25) In his review Orwell records these developments, recognising that:
In no case, needless to say, has he been accused of any particular crime. Nowadays, over increasing areas of the earth, one is imprisoned not for what one does but for what one is, or, more exactly, for what one is suspected of being. Still, Mr Koestler can congratulate himself on having hitherto fallen only into the hands of amateurs. If England imprisoned him, it at any rate let him out again, and did not force him beforehand to confess to poisoning sheep, committing sabotage on the railways or plotting to assassinate the King. (12:358; original emphasis)
Here, Orwell settles for a vague criticism of the inevitable actions of all governments, everywhere; he certainly does not hold England to a higher standard as one might expect. The pre-emptive imprisonment that Orwell references clearly evokes the British wartime powers, encompassing the mass internment of both refugees (due to their nationality) and political internees (due to the risk they may pose if allowed their liberty). Orwell is clearly uncomfortable with this practice, yet one does not find the same direct denunciation of the internment of enemy aliens, such as Koestler, that one observes in The Lion and the Unicorn. Instead, Orwell focuses on comparing the 'amateur' English to unspoken professionals in continental totalitarian regimes. What is most noticeable to Orwell is the inefficiency of the inexpert English in crushing civil liberties; he believes such abuses are culturally unfamiliar and thus not followed through. As a result, Orwell humorously paints England as a relatively benign place to be interned. He makes clear that Koestler was not subjected to the blatant, almost ridiculous, abuses of the law which he would have experienced abroad. It is no coincidence that this discussion is located in a review of Darkness at Noon, a novel which captures the horror of the arbitrary application of laws in totalitarian regimes. When set alongside such extensive abuses of civil liberties, Orwell suggests that the English response can only seem measured and reasonable.
Orwell argued that there remains a vital difference in atmosphere and outlook between democratic and totalitarian systems. In 'Fascism and Democracy' published in February 1941, Orwell considers whether democracy is objectively different from fascism during a crisis, first summarising 'the case against "bourgeois" Democracy':
A democratic country fighting a desperate war is forced, just as much as an autocracy or a Fascist state, to conscript soldiers, coerce labour, imprison defeatists, suppress seditious newspapers; in other words, it can only save itself from destruction by ceasing to be democratic. The things it is supposed to be fighting for are always scrapped as soon as the fighting starts. (12:377)
Orwell's list is reminiscent of the most significant Defence Regulations and, without referencing England directly, he accepts that the argument 'contains much truth' (12:377). Revealingly, however, Orwell immediately poses the following question: 'yet why is it that it is ultimately false--for everyone bred in a democratic country knows quasi-instinctively that there is something wrong with the whole line of this argument?' (12:377). The answer, he says, is that,
it cannot explain the whole ofthe facts. The actual differences in social atmosphere and political behaviour between country and country are far greater than can be explained by any theory which writes off laws, customs, traditions, etc. as mere 'superstructure'. On paper it is very simple to demonstrate that Democracy is 'just the same as' (or 'just as bad as') totalitarianism ... . But the implied argument all along the line is that a difference of degree is not a difference. (12:377-8)
With the luxury of neutrality denied to him by war Orwell had already made clear, in 'Notes on the Way' that he chose the lesser of these two evils, despite their flaws and hypocrisies: 'If I side with Britain and France, it is because I would sooner side with the older imperialisms--decadent, as Hitler quite rightly calls them--than with the new ones which are completely sure of themselves and therefore completely merciless' (12:124). Yet Orwell does not simply settle for the least unpalatable option and accept that war may lead England towards totalitarianism. Instead, he constructs an argument--the kernel of which is contained in the passages from 'Fascism and Democracy' cited above--as to why he believes England would be able to protect itself, even in wartime, from the permanent dissolution of its democratic legacy; this argument is founded upon the specific history of England.
In 1941 Orwell supplied a series of 'London Letters' to the American journal Partisan Review that offered a British perspective on the war. For the April letter the editors asked Orwell to explain to American readers how a 'remarkable amount of democracy and civil liberties' had survived in England during the war (12:475). Orwell did not reject the premise of the question and consequently accepted that civil liberties had persisted in spite of the crisis. His explanation is summarised in one line: '"British tradition" is a vague phrase, but I think it is the nearest answer' (12:475). This sentiment echoes the 'laws, customs, traditions' Orwell mentions in 'Fascism and Democracy', and calls up the 'something distinctive and recognisable in English civilization' which Orwell seeks to incorporate into his vision of an English socialist future in The Lion and the Unicorn (12:377; 12:392-3). This nebulous idea fascinates Orwell during this period, recurring across a number of publications, and he appears to use it to reassure himself of the ability of English culture to withstand any assault on its liberties.
It is difficult, however, to pin down exactly how Orwell feels 'British tradition' protects individual civil liberties. Contemporary legal scholars relied on the persistence of legislative scrutiny to reassure them that British liberty was likely to survive the war. (26) Lord Justice Wright, within his verdict on the most renowned case to consider the limits of 18B, Liversidge v. Anderson, noted:
in the constitution of this country there are no guaranteed or absolute rights. The safeguard of British liberty is in the good sense of the people and in the system of representative and responsible government which has been evolved. (27)
What is striking is the particular emphasis Orwell placed on the human element (the 'good sense of the people'), rather than the institutional safeguards offered by Parliament. In his April 'London Letter', Orwell remarks that 'Liberty of every kind must obviously decline as a result of war, but given the present structure of society and social atmosphere there is a point beyond which the decline cannot go' (12:476). Again Orwell inserts the caveat that war necessitates some sacrifices, but he holds strongly to the belief that there is something in English culture which protects this society from the total renunciation of democratic values. Frustratingly, Orwell never defines precisely what this 'something' is, or how it will practically assure that civil liberties will be protected. He chooses instead to return to a familiar device--comparison between England and a foreign society. In The Lion and the Unicorn he claims that: 'Things that could happen in one country could not happen in another. Hitler's June Purge, for instance, could not have happened in England' (12:392). This sentiment is expanded upon in 'Fascism and Democracy':
England may suffer many degenerative changes as a result of war, but it cannot, except possibly by conquest, be turned into a replica of Nazi Germany. It may develop towards some kind of Austro-fascism, but not towards the Fascism of the positive, revolutionary, malignant type. The necessary human material is not there. (12:379)
This vague, almost complacent, notion--that England is not the kind of place where Nazism could take root--is something Orwell holds to dearly; however his argument is founded on little more than the idea that the English are incapable of acting in a similar fashion to the Germans (or other citizens of totalitarian states). Orwell is adamant that the 'human material'--the people--would not become involved in Nazi practices, but offers little evidence to support his assertion. Orwell appears to exhibit what Chase, writing in early 1942, called 'a disposition towards the complacency which remains the characteristic attitude of today', based on the fact that 'civil liberties continued to be recognized by grace if not by law' in England. (28)
Orwell's somewhat utopian viewpoint remains rather surprising, given his experiences in Spain; he understood all too well that laws could be easily abused without strong safeguards in place. (29) Moreover, Orwell markedly failed to exhort the British people to be vigilant regarding their liberties at this crucial juncture of the war. In this, Orwell appears out of step from others on the Left who had also revised their stance on measures like internment. Laski, for example, wrote several pieces on this topic, cognisant of one fundamental question: 'In the background of war, and its immense dangers, does public opinion generally, and Parliament in particular, realize the need for a vigilant watch upon the habits of authority?' (30) Left-leaning papers such as the Manchester Guardian and New Statesman echoed this sentiment, with both asserting that even in wartime 'eternal vigilance' remains the price of liberty. (31) The existence of legal and parliamentary safeguards, while of apparently limited interest to Orwell, were of considerable importance to Laski and afforded him sufficient reassurance to maintain his support for the emergency measures. He doubtless remained aware of sentiments expressed by Ronald Kidd, the Secretary of the National Council of Civil Liberties and one of the sternest critics of the emergency powers, who warned in the summer of 1940 that public 'inaction, resulting from apathy or discouragement, is the surest way to surrender our democratic liberties'. (32)
In contrast to others on the Left, then, for Orwell the key question was not whether the law actually protected each individual, but that the widespread belief in a fair, impartial justice system made England a different (and better) place to live:
Everyone believes in his heart that the law can be, ought to be, and, on the whole, will be impartially administered. The totalitarian idea that there is no law, there is only power, has never taken root... . In England such concepts as justice, liberty and objective truth are still believed in. They may be illusions, but they are very powerful illusions. The belief in them influences conduct, national life is different because of them. (12:397)
Trust in the fact that civil liberties exist in England, Orwell asserts, creates an atmosphere in which it is more likely that they will be observed. Orwell effectively argues that the English people's belief in the rule of law has intrinsic performative value. Runciman summarises this as Orwell's defence of 'the relatively innocent hypocrisy of democracy'. (33) For Runciman, Orwell's case centres on the innocence of the English belief in democratic values, and their willingness to 'play-act' in a sincere manner, even if in truth English democracy is far from perfect. (34) As a result, English society is less receptive to totalitarian impulses, and would not allow the State to go beyond a certain point. Hypocrisy pervades society, but the effect is benign. Crucially, Orwell makes no suggestion that war, or the measures used in war, undermined this atmosphere. As a result, he contended that, unless and 'until some deep change has occurred in the public mind' (12:397), English democracy would be safeguarded against the fascising measures he previously feared.
There remains, nonetheless, a tension between the illusion of an England which retained a strong sense of the innate value of civil liberties and the reality of wartime England which severely curtailed them. War was justified, and supported by Orwell, as a conflict in the name of liberty and democracy, to protect against the danger of rule by the kind of measures discussed throughout this article. Yet, inevitable or not, the use of totalitarian methods to fight a totalitarian enemy was, it is clear, tolerated by Orwell at this time. He articulated why he believed such measures had to be accepted, yet his silence on the measures themselves suggest that he was not willing, or able, to endorse their use in England in the early months of the war. This mirrors the contemporary mood. The emergency powers regime was accepted as a necessary evil, not celebrated as a vital tool in the fight against the enemy. Yet the English people, Orwell believed, still needed to embrace the illusion that they remained the guardians of civil liberties, while the liberty of their fellow countrymen was routinely being denied.
The acceptance of this illusion became a function of the manner in which England, as a democracy, found itself conducting total war. War demanded the sacrifice of civil liberties at home, but it also needed to garner the support of the English people. Orwell--and many contemporary commentators--understood that such sacrifices had to be justified in a way which aligned with English values and traditions. As a result, the hypocrisy of the emergency powers regime was openly accepted, and the powers were introduced and administered almost regretfully. (35) It is for this reason that Orwell was able to reflect that the encroachments on civil liberties were conducted only to the extent that they were necessary, and could justify the English record of comparative reasonableness. Orwell's failure to substantively criticise internment is surprising in light of his pre-war experiences and his public position on civil liberties. Yet he attempted to justify his silence based on the extraordinary circumstances of war. Orwell was caught on the horns of a dilemma famously encapsulated by E. M. Forster in 1939: 'if Fascism wins we are done for [but] we must become Fascist to win'. (36) From his writings of this period, we can observe that Orwell essentially lived the illusion he describes in The Lion and the Unicorn. Whether he was correct to place his faith in this illusion is open to debate.
The author wishes to thank the BBC Written Archives Centre, Caversham Park, Reading and the Trustees of the Mass Observation Archive, University of Sussex for permission to reproduce their materials.
University of Birmingham
Address for Correspondence
Emma Robinson, Department of English, School of English, Drama and American and Canadian Studies, University of Birmingham, Edgbaston, Birmingham, B15 2TT
(1) All subsequent quotations from Orwell's writing refer to The Complete Works of George Orwell, ed. Peter Davison (London, 2000-01) unless otherwise stated. Volume and page numbers will follow in brackets.
(2) The Emergency Powers (Defence) Act 1939 was the first in a series of legislative moves by the Government to tighten its control of British citizens. Similar Acts followed in May and July 1940, enhancing the Government's powers.
(3) Regulation 18B, introduced on 1 September 1939, permitted the restriction of the activities of individuals, or their detention without trial. MPs soon questioned the unfettered discretion afforded to the Home Secretary and the broad drafting of the regulation, which precluded any certainty as to who could be detained. Some legislative redrafting ensued, but the regulation remained in place throughout the war. Its scope was significantly enhanced by Regulation 18B(1A) in May 1940, which allowed the detention of current or former members and supporters of targeted organisations, and in effect allowed the suppression of domestic fascist organisations and the detention of individuals associated with these groups. For a full discussion of these regulations, and extensive bibliographical references, see A. W. Brian Simpson, In the Highest Degree Odious: Detention Without Trial in Wartime Britain (Oxford, 1992).
(4) On 29 August 1939 Orwell alludes to the enactment of the inaugural Defence Regulations, referencing several newspapers which included detailed summaries of the new legislation. See: 'Sweeping Powers Taken under Defence Act, Daily Telegraph, 29 August 1939, 13; 'Safety of the Realm: First Regulations under the New Act', The Times, 29 August 1939, 16.
(5) George Orwell, Coming Up for Air (London, 2000), p. 166.
(6) Ibid, p. 157.
(7) John Newsinger, Orwell's Politics (Basingstoke, 2001), p. 62.
(8) HC Deb 24 August 1939 vol. 351 cols 2-63.
(9) HC Deb 31 October 1939 vol. 352 col. 1830. Foot withdrew his motion after the Government proposed cross-party consultation.
(10) The National Archives (hereafter TNA), MEPO 38/69, 'Special Branch File on Eric Blair alias George Orwell, Author and Journalist'. TNA, KV 2/2699, 'Security Service File on George Orwell alias Eric Arthur Blair'.
(11) As James Smith outlines, in his excellent review of Orwell's interaction with MI5, Orwell was monitored infrequently compared to fellow left-wing writers. This, Smith suggests, was due to Orwell's decision to distance himself from the 'orthodox organisations of the left' routinely monitored by British intelligence. James Smith, British Writers and MI5 Surveillance, 1930-1960 (Cambridge, 2013), p. 113.
(12) TNA, KV 2/2699. 'Note from W. Ogilvie', 4 February 1942, Serial 9.
(13) BBC Written Archives Centre, Caversham, L1/42/1. R. A. Rendall, 'BBC Internal Circulating Memo from D.E.S. to C.(O).', 25 June 1941.
(14) HC Deb 31 October 1939 vol. 352 cols 1879-1881.
(15) Harold Laski, 'Government in Wartime', in Harold Laski et al (eds), Where Stands Democracy ? (London, 1940), p. 37.
(16) Harold Laski, 'Civil Liberties in Great Britain in Wartime', Bill of Rights Review, 2 (1942), 243.
(17) By the end of August 1940 18B detainees reached a peak of 1,428. Simpson, Highest Degree, p. 192.
(18) At the height of internment approximately 27,000 enemy aliens were detained. John Eaves, Emergency Powers and the Parliamentary Watchdog: Parliament and the Executive in Great Britain, 1939-1951 (London, 1957), p. 90.
(19) Christopher Hollis, A Study of George Orwell: The Man and His Works (London, 1956), p. 129.
(20) During a House of Commons debate of 22 August 1940, for example, considerable dissent was expressed on the Government's handling of the 'aliens' question (HC Deb 22 August 1940 vol. 364 cols 1475-586). For similar criticism in the Press, see: 'Liberty in Wartime', New Statesman and Nation, 17 August 1940, 152-3; 'Public Opinion About Aliens Ignored', Spectator, 23 August 1940, 183.
(21) Mass Observation Archive, Sussex, FR 135. 'Report from Mass-Observation on Reactions to Internment of Mosley', 24 May 1940, p. 3.
(22) The internment of fascists was frequently contextualised by the threat of invasion: 'The New Order', Manchester Guardian, 24 May 1940, 4; 'The Arrest of Fascists', Spectator, 31 May 1940, 739. Noted legal scholar Ivor Jennings contended that if the new measures represented 'a breach of the rule of law, the rule of law is nonsense in these days of Fifth Columns'. Ivor Jennings, 'The Rule of Law in Total War', The Yale Law Journal, 15:3 (1941), 384.
(23) Simpson, Highest Degree, p. 407.
(24) Orwell had previously reviewed Koestler's Spanish Testament and had long been interested in the fate of the Hungarian-born author who had been imprisoned and sentenced to death by Franco's forces during the Spanish Civil War (11:112-13).
(25) Smith, British Writers, p. 132.
(26) Jennings argued in August 1940 that there was 'no great danger' that the emergency powers would be abused as 'long as the House of Commons sits'. Ivor Jennings, 'The Emergency Powers (Defence) (No.2) Act, 1940', The Modern Law Review, 4:2, 135. While recognising that 'Emergency Powers Acts would, in a legal sense, permit of [sic] arbitrary government', he held that 'political conditions, through the control of Parliament, forbids abuses in the exercise of the Acts'. Jennings, 'Rule of Law', 386. Carr raised similar points in December 1940, albeit with less confidence than Jennings that Parliament would be an entirely effective safeguard. Cecil Thomas Carr, 'Crisis Legislation in Great Britain', Columbia Law Review, 40:8 (1940), 1311-12.
(27) Lord Justice Wright in Liversidge v. Anderson  3 All ER 338, cited in Cecil Thomas Carr, 'A Regulated Liberty: War-Time Regulations and Judicial Review in Great Britain', Columbia Law Review, 42:3 (1942), 340.
(28) Eugene P. Chase, 'The War and the English Constitution', American Political Science Review, 36:1 (1942), 98.
(29) Before the war Orwell had stressed the importance of watchfulness. Even in January 1940, in correspondence with Victor Gollancz, Orwell still worried whether 'ordinary people in countries like England grasp the difference between democracy and despotism well enough to want to defend their liberties' (12:5).
(30) Laski, 'Civil Liberties', 243.
(31) 'Defence Regulations', Manchester Guardian, 30 November 1939, 6 and 'Liberty in Wartime', New Statesman and Nation, 17 August 1940, 153.
(32) Ronald Kidd, British Liberty in Danger: An Introduction to the Study of Civil Rights (London, 1940), p. 257.
(33) David Runciman, Political Hypocrisy: The Mask of Power, From Hobbes to Orwell and Beyond (Princeton, New Jersey, 2008), p. 180.
(34) Ibid., p. 180.
(35) In the first debate on the Emergency Powers the Home Secretary, Sir Samuel Hoare, said: 'I feel many regrets that once again the Home Secretary has to come to the House and ask for powers that trench on many of the most cherished liberties and practices of his fellow-citizens'. HC Deb 24 August 1939 vol. 351 col. 63.
(36) E. M. Forster, 'Post-Munich' in Two Cheers for Democracy (Harmondsworth, 1965), p. 34. Forster's article first appeared as 'The 1939 State' in New Statesman and Nation, 10 June 1939, 888.
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|Publication:||Literature & History|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2014|
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