Shirley Williams
Shirley Williams; drawing by David Levine

Bernard Crick is the editor of the Political Quarterly, a journal founded and in the past edited by Leonard Woolf, which places him politically. He is middle-of-the-road socialist, disliking British snobbery and inefficiency but not disposed to have much truck with notions of mass participation and alliances with communists or Trotskyites. He is not a social democrat but a socialist like Woolf, or G.D.H. Cole. That may well be why Crick was chosen to write George Orwell’s life and given access to the archive.

There may have been another reason. Crick has a remarkably independent mind and a large, irascible way of seeing things. He has interviewed as many people as he could who knew Orwell and accepts none of their accounts at face value. Neither does he accept Orwell’s account. Orwell’s first six books and numbers of his articles appear to be strongly autobiographical, but Crick pounces on all the deviations from the factual record of his life. He reminds one of Inspector Bucket in Bleak House, whose first action when faced with the murder of Mr. Tulking-horn was to arrest the honorable and upright Sergeant George.

Quick as a flash Crick has the handcuffs on Orwell. No good protesting that Orwell was the soul of honesty, bleak, self-critical, self-denying, transparently deflationary of upper-class hypocrisy and of the self-deceptions of his fellow intellectuals. Anyone who changes his name must be suspect. Why did he do it? (Answer: No need to make a drama or anything significant out of it. Eric Blair chose George Orwell as a pen name because he thought his first book might flop, and if so he could write his second under his own name. He responded with equal ease to both and always signed business documents with his real name.)

But there are less satisfactory stories. Did Orwell or did Orwell not exaggerate in his account of being beaten for wetting his bed at the boarding school for small boys to which he was sent (along with his contemporary Cyril Connolly)? Is it credible that he was beaten for five minutes with a riding crop that broke? Indeed, was it not, as another contemporary recalls, another boy who was punished? Savage as some of the customs of the school were, does not the evidence suggest that he was unpopular not because his parents were too poor to pay full fees or that he was socially unacceptable but because he was bookish, unclubbable, and mentally superior to the other boys?

Crick’s interrogation of his suspect continues throughout the book. Mark Benney, a friendly, acute social analyst born in the working class, remembers that in one of his wartime “Letters from London” for Partisan Review Orwell reported that when the railings surrounding squares were torn down to provide scrap metal, the squares in working-class districts were chosen for demolition while the railings in the upper-class West End squares were spared. When Benney told him that it was patently untrue, Orwell said, “Anyway, it was essentially true.” This looks bad for the prisoner. After all, what is this remark but a characteristic Marxist ploy of maintaining that there is an objective truth which does not depend on fact and which no citation of facts to the contrary can affect? This time the Inspector exculpates Orwell. The rumor was widely believed at the time and Orwell was merely guilty of a practice all too common among journalists of not checking his facts.

Such is the technique Crick employs throughout his book. How much of an anticolonialist was Orwell when he was in the Burmese police? (Not so committed a one when he struck with his stick a student at Rangoon University College who, fooling about, bumped into him.) When did he become a socialist? (Not so early as you might think.) Why did he join the anarchists and not the communists in Spain? (Because he had already made some slighting remarks about communism in The Road to Wigan Pier and Communist Party headquarters refused to help him, whereas the Independent Labour Party, a splinter group on the left which, at that time, came nearest to what Orwell stood for, sponsored him.) Did he, on his return from Spain, support Churchill and others who were in favor of rearmament? (Answer: He believed that a war between Britain and Germany would be “one band of robbers against another” and hence opposed rearmament until the Nazi-Soviet Pact, no better than most members of the Labour Party.)

Of course, Inspector Bucket only held Sergeant George in custody so as to lull the true murderess into a sense of false security; and Bernard Crick has no intention of debunking Orwell, for whom he has a steady admiration. Nor does he dissent much from Orwell’s main contention that the murderers of the good life in Britain are its upper classes with their snobbery and its progressive intelligentsia who connive in replacing them with a totalitarian Marxist regime.


But what Crick mainly dislikes is portraiture in biography. I have been interested to see that the last two scholarly biographies which I have studied both reject portraiture. Phyllis Grosskurth’s documentation of Havelock Ellis was so crushing that she left the reader to make up his own mind what kind of man Ellis was. So did Allen Bell, who, on finding a couple of thousand letters by Sydney Smith in addition to the two thousand already published, wrote a chronological account of his life and left us to fill in for ourselves the undeniable defects of that latitudinarian Whig and the undeniable charm and good sense of that inspired master of humor.

The portrait, so Crick argues, is almost always fake. It is not a study of inwardness that reveals what a man is. It is his relationship with other human beings and with society itself. And yet, despite his disclaimers and the fact that some of Orwell’s friends such as Arthur Koestler declare that they cannot get Crick’s image of Orwell into focus, a portrait of Orwell undoubtedly emerges. Just as there are painters who are interested primarily in the problems of blending one patch of light with another by means of glazes, and who let the character of the sitter emerge through, almost in spite of, their technique, so Orwell remains at the end not, it is true, the character of his own factoid writing, but recognizable as the character who impressed his friends by his devotion to a vision of political life as impressive as that of Tawney—a character of exceptional integrity, austerity, and dedication.

The portrait of Orwell that emerges is a good deal more credible and sympathetic than the stereotype of recent years. Ask an English schoolboy on entering college what books he has read and he will usually answer: Lawrence, Hardy, Orwell. Their works are set for the examinations that qualify you to enter a university, and the Establishment that Orwell so detested can be seen as skillfully passing him off as the classic defender of English liberty and democracy against communism. But the young do not read Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four alone: they read the essays and enjoy the way Orwell takes the mickey out of the society whose liberty he defended.

The fact that toward the end of his life he found a power, Soviet Russia and its agent the Communist Party, even more odious and despicable than the English ruling classes should not blind anyone to the fact that they too were his target. And so was the British intelligentsia. He had little use for most of them: they were either pretentious or conceited and he did not endear himself to the New Statesman by often referring to the “pansy left” or by writing in his column in the Tribune, “Don’t imagine that for years on end you can make yourself the boot-licking propagandist of the Soviet regime or any other regime, and then suddenly return to mental decency. Once a whore, always a whore.” (This brought Kingsley Martin to the phone shouting that he would sue the rival left-wing periodical for libel.)

When Orwell left the police force in Burma, he had two ambitions: to write and to learn, like St. Francis, what it was to be poor. He knew nothing about writing. One story began, “Inside the park, the crocuses were out.” He didn’t even know how to spell the four-letter words he wanted to use. He became a master of short, simple, hard-hitting prose the hard way. Poverty was no problem. He earned so little. He determined to declare himself, and his first books describe this experience. He was not the first middle-class young man to do so and, as a writer, he inevitably came up for air after submerging himself in vile kitchens in Paris or in the tripe shop at Wigan.

But he had the writer’s instincts for the preservation of his talent. He knew that it could grow only if he fed it with not only new experiences but those which spoke to his condition; and that however strong his commitment to working-class life, he had to surface to record his feelings. His behavior at Wigan is revealing. His Independent Labour Party contacts found him a working-class lodging, his hosts unemployed, cold water only, outside lavatory, but, with working-class pride, a home kept clean and tidy. Not good enough for Orwell: he left to find something worse and dirtier. His hosts concluded he was interested only in muckraking and that he wanted to make the working classes out as squalid and feckless. Those who met him there thought he was cynical, but also “delving”; and Orwell did in fact transmit incomparably what it was like to be unemployed and under the lash of the Means Test (a series of administrative regulations which humiliated the unemployed by permitting officials to peer into every corner of their lives). But he also appreciated the decency, the warmth, the homeliness of the families he met, and contrasted their lives with the acquisitiveness of the entrepreneurs and the ignorant arrogance of the intelligentsia.


Creators, as distinct from analysts, must distort and shape to their will their raw material, but Crick shows how much Orwell cared for truth and how he never cared whether his pursuit of it would upset his allies. Orwell described a fascist rally addressed by Oswald Mosley and noted how the working-class audience was bamboozled by the anti-Semitic propaganda, noted with anger how one of his communist friends was beaten up by the bully boys when he persistently heckled, but then argued with him later that heckling to break up a meeting was wrong. Not exactly the kind of ally that politicians relish.

He was an artist in politics, not a politician. A politician has to build up a power base, grapple for allies, go along with their prejudices, and satisfy their desires as far as he can without deviating too far from the path he has worked out as his own; and hence he is abused by the Orwells for hypocrisy and treachery. It was this bleak, defiant, high-minded hatred of conservative cant and communist double-speak which made him so wary of people such as Kingsley Martin and his own publisher Victor Gollancz. They produced the stock answer of the Thirties, which was that since no capitalist government would be likely to oppose fascism, a working alliance—the Popular Front—had to be formed; and if in that alliance the Communist Party was unquestionably the most militant and resourceful, well, one did not question too closely the motives or credibility of one’s allies.

This was the strategy that enabled Gollancz blandly to take advantage of Orwell’s absence fighting in Spain to issue a new edition of The Road to Wigan Pier omitting the second part, which contained some deadly home truths about communists. He did so, as Crick shows, even though Orwell had refused to allow the book to be bowdlerized in this way when the Left Book Club first selected it. The book had sold in its first edition (with a critical, superior, fellow-traveling introduction by Gollancz) well over 40,000 copies.

Of course Orwell himself was the prisoner of his age and guilty of some political silliness: for instance, the silliness of declaring oneself in 1938 the vehement opponent of fascism yet opposing rearmament as a trick of capitalist governments to use their newly armed forces to suppress the working class. (There were quite a number of sound Labour supporters in the universities in the Thirties who declared such a policy to be nonsense even though their party stuck to it, so Orwell was not always uniquely wise.) But nothing can detract from his refusal, before and during the war, to follow top people who extolled Uncle Joe or to toe the fellow traveler’s line. After his experiences in the Spanish Civil War he was unequivocal in declaring that the most dangerous enemy of socialism is communism.

Moreover, nothing can detract from his dedicated identification with the interests of the working class. He sentimentalized them less than E.M. Forster, another friend of liberty, who came on the whole well out of the political arguments of the 1930s, and he knew them better than R.H. Tawney—whose centenary it was recently—who believed that “liberty without equality is a thing of noble sound but squalid result.” Tawney, like Orwell, hated not only British imperialism but the trappings of British life. “What harm did I ever do to the Labour Party?” he asked when Ramsay MacDonald offered him a peerage. Other intellectuals such as Harold Laski or G.D.H. Cole may have had a wider influence and persuaded larger numbers of the middle class to vote for the Labour Party. But Tawney and Orwell had the profounder effect on the young, in making them feel ashamed to belong to a society which cared so little for the dignity and health of their fellow citizens. Perhaps it is not surprising that the person Orwell felt closest to among Labour politicians was Aneurin Bevan, the architect of the National Health Service.

No Labour administration could ever have satisfied Orwell. He shared Forster’s distrust of technocracy. Nineteen Eighty-Four is as much a satire on the methods of technocrats, whether they are called management, corporation men, or apparatchiki. Like Forster and the Georgian poets. Orwell believed the countryside, its crops, birds and animals, its smell, its customs, its way of life, was something that restored life in men otherwise brutalized by industrialism. Harold Wilson’s slogans about the white-hot technological revolution that was to revitalize Britain would have been greeted sardonically by Orwell. So would Wilson’s entourage or his shady appointees, quite a few of whom retired under a cloud or are actually in jail. So would the middle-of-the-road, middle-class socialism of the public school boys and grammar school boys who had been to Oxford. He might have approved of some of the libertarian reforms concerning the law on sexual offenses and the censorship of the theater. But he would have had no use for neo-Whigs—and numbers of those who brought Labour to power in the Sixties in reality wanted not red-blooded Orwellian socialism but an alternative Establishment.

Orwell would have asked why the Labour government had not abolished the peerage instead of using it as part of the web of patronage. The way Wilson’s cabinets conducted their business would not have won his approval. He was not hostile to the exercise of authority, which he was quick to distinguish from totalitarianism; and the spectacle of authority in the cabinet dissolving in the acid of petty enmities between ministers of a Labour government would have disgusted him. Even if it could have been proved to him that the working-class standard of living rose appreciably in the Sixties and Seventies, he would have regarded Britain as still hopelessly class-ridden, still full of snobbery, even if some of the objects of snobbery had changed.

But it is exceedingly doubtful that he would have thrown in his lot with the left wing, which has gained power within the Labour Party during the dodgy politics of Wilson and Callaghan. The past fifteen years have seen the emergence of syndicalism in practically every walk of life. Whether it is in the form of citizen participation, or in protest, or in the countervailing forces which have been institutionalized in central and local government, or most strikingly within the Labour Party itself and in the trades unions, a new calling has emerged which has all the appeal that itinerant puritan preachers once had.

It is the calling of activism. In the old days of unreconstructed capitalism those who followed this calling would have been called agitators. Today activists no longer agitate outside the power structure. They are part of it. They are to be found among the shop strewards on the floor of the factory who not only harass management but have taken power out of the hands of the officials at trades union headquarters. There are also the activists in the local constituency Labour parties. They are the men and women who do not accept that the politics that the member of parliament or candidate for their constituency has to practice is the art of the possible, the politics of compromise and of trade-offs. The old working-class constituency party chairmen and committee members, bound by the tradition of “the movement,” not only people to set any river, let alone the Thames, on fire, are being pushed from the stage by the activists who are determined to make their member of parliament their creature and force him to follow their line as their delegate.

No one could imagine that British politics has operated on the principle that Burke enunciated in his letter to the electors of Bristol in which he declined to be their delegate and told them roundly that the member they elected should be free to exercise his own judgment. Ever since the days of Disraeli and Gladstone the party whips have exercised a discipline over their members unknown in Congress; and from time to time in the past, naturally enough, some MPs have fallen foul and lost their seats because their constituency party disowned them. But it happened rarely. Discipline over MPs was exercised usually by the parliamentary party and its whips, not by the constituency party, and the lines followed were that of the leader of the party and of his cabinet or, if in opposition, his shadow cabinet, not the fiat of the national executive of the party as laid down in the annual party conference in October. To whom is a member of parliament mainly accountable? This is the issue that is splitting the party and on which the left wing of the party has at long last gained the upper hand over the center and right.

But the center and right have a striking majority in the parliamentary party, that is to say the politicians whom the electorate actually return to Parliament. This is why the parliamentary party, after having chosen Michael Foot leader in the hope of electing someone acceptable to both wings of the party, decided then to elect only one of the left-wing MPs, out of a baker’s dozen, to a place in the shadow cabinet. The left wing is now in the ascendant in the national executive of the party, at the annual conference, and in numbers of constituency parties. But it is not in the ascendancy in the parliamentary party.

The Labour parliamentary party is at present composed of those who held their seats when the party was defeated in a general election eighteen months ago. The left-wingers were deserted by the electors; and the parliamentary party is thus composed of those who believe that the visionary neo-Marxism of the activists in the constituency parties will lose Labour the next election. The activists, believing among other things that by the next election there may be three or four million unemployed, also believe that only radical measures can save the country and that at a time of crisis the true socialist state can at last be built.

George Orwell would, I think, have sympathized with many of the aims of the present left-wing spokesmen. He would not have been found among those defending the House of Lords, indefensible as at present composed, or the independent schools, still formidable divisive influences in British social life. Bernard Crick has recently given his reasons why, fortified by his familiarity with Orwell, he sees no reason to leave a Labour Party which his regaining its commitment to the socialism of equality and why he believes that it is still an undoctrinaire coalition of interests, inevitably becoming more radical now that unemployment mounts. He also argues that the left-wing Tribune group now taking over command in the party is composed of too many ill-disciplined individualists whose lives have been spent in fighting for freedom to express their views for them now to combine to suppress freedom within the Labour Party.

He may be right. But one thing is certain. Orwell would have noted how the acitivists operate. They operate as if they were trained in old well-tried Communist Party tactics. They obtain power in constituency parties or in local branch meetings of their trades unions by prolonging discussion by every procedural device until the ordinary member (who usually attends only at a time when major issues have to be decided) is exasperated and goes home: then the activists pass their resolutions designed to place power in their hands. Those who oppose them are abused and black-guarded. A new violence has erupted within the party, and television and the press, reviled by the activists as capitalist lackeys, reported the bitterness of spirit displayed at the party conference last autumn.

This may be the bad temper from which the Labour Party suffers after losing an election, or it may be an indication that the manners of the militants on the campus some years ago are now becoming more the norm in conference and constituency in-fighting. There are, of course, other reasons why people such as Shirley Williams, who for quite a few was their conscience in the party, have decided to leave it. The party conference’s decisions to leave the EEC, retreat behind a tariff wall, disarm unilaterally, and vote for billions more public expenditure that the country’s declining industrial productivity cannot sustain, they consider to be madness. But just at the moment the constitutional issue seems to Shirley Williams crucial she cannot accept the demand by the activists that they should control the way their constituency member of parliament votes, and not the party whips in the House supporting the policy of the cabinet. Nor can Shirley Williams and her friends accept the decisions of the party conference of last January. Why should the leadership of the party be decided by trade-offs between the biggest trade union bosses who have no responsibility for governing when a Labour government is in power?

Similarly, the demand by the Labour Party conference that the cabinet carry out to the letter the conference’s decisions, regardless of the shifts in Britain’s relationship to the rest of the world, strikes the Gang of Four (Roy Jenkins, David Owen, Bill Rogers, and Shirley Williams) as equally utopian. Moreover, the activists too frequently give the impression that, unlike Labour Party visionaries in the past who neglected power, they know too much about power. They are out to get the police and the press under direct political control, to chop the balls off the civil service, which, as in any European country, is the nation’s executive, and generally to exercise a veto over the actions of anyone, whatever his political affinities, who is responsible for making any organization run.

The Gang of Four have now abandoned the struggle for the soul of the party and have left the activists to drag it off to hell. They have set up their own banner and are on the way to found what they call the Social Democrat party, which in alliance with the Liberals is to win seats in Parliament by drawing votes from traditional Labour supporters fed up with the infiltration by Communists and the Trotskyites and from those who voted Tory at the last election and are dismayed to find their businesses bankrupt and themselves on relief. Such a coalition of the center—so the storyline runs—would hold the balance in Parliament and as a condition of forming a government would insist on reform of the electoral process and the introduction of proportional representation. Then Britain would no longer be at the mercy of the extremist politics of mad monetarists or insular syndicalists.

So far there has hardly been a stampede in the parliamentary Labour Party, let alone among the trade unions or the constituency parties to join a party of the center. Of course whenever the Conservative or Labour parties shift policy decisively a few of the leaders who have lost out slip off the ship. A number of Heath-men have disappeared from the scene since Margaret Thatcher became leader of the Conservative Party. Yet the interesting fact is how many of the old guard of the Macmillan and Heath era are still in office and wield power. Denis Healey and a number of others clearly expect to accommodate themselves and adjust to new times—and probably make the policy shift in fact a good deal less decisive than their opponents hope it will be. The Social Democrats make a more lugubrious prophecy: namely that a government whose leader, possibly soon its Cabinet, is responsible to trade union bosses and to constituency activists who intend to ignore all the impersonal external forces, such as the terms of trade, which affect all governments, will not govern for long.

Whether in fact out of the muddle the usual compromise emerges depends to some extent on how many of those who vote for the Labour Party, or work for it, retain Orwell’s unselfishness, sturdiness, and integrity. Out of Crick’s bustling scrutiny of the evidence there emerges a person who was kind, generous, brave, and self-critical to a point which almost embarrassed his friends. When his first wife died he asked several girls to marry him—his choice displayed his excellent taste—but he did not allow their refusals to upset him or them. He was too tough and independent to stir protective instincts. He saw through a good many of his friends, but his steadfast good humor stopped his friendship with them from suffering. You don’t feel ashamed of not being more like him because he was such an odd card and didn’t ask anyone to follow his example. But when you put this book about him down you feel diminished and petty.

This Issue

April 16, 1981