The Lion and the Unicorn- Orwell’s Wartime Vision

Article by Orlando Jenkinson. Edited and researched by Hayley Arnold.

‘As I write, highly civilised human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me.’ So wrote George Orwell in the dark days of 1940, the Fascism he so despised was close to defeating Hitler’s last opponent in Europe – Great Britain. But, as we all know, in Britain’s most perilous hour, hope was kindled. National solidarity and commonly shared patriotism forged bonds of unity across Britain’s deeply divided society – over the deep scars worn by the generation that had lived through the Great Depression and with the menace of unemployment. Orwell recognised the ‘overwhelming strength’ of patriotism and national loyalty in the modern world, and through his essay ‘The Lion and the Unicorn’ envisioned its alliance with progressive democratic socialism, anticipating in part the great reformist changes achieved by the Attlee Government after the war. His vision of uniting patriotism with democratic socialism proved at times prophetic, and can shed much light on our own time and his.

George Orwell, 1933

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In Part One, Orwell provides his analysis of English culture c. 1940, offering fascinating insights. English culture was ‘somehow bound up with solid breakfasts and gloomy Sundays, smoky towns and winding roads, green fields and red pillarboxes,’ capturing its essence and showing its timeless nature. This was not to say that Britain was some form of gentle utopia, as Orwell’s classics Down and Out in Paris and London and The Road to Wigan Pier confirmed by highlighting the vast inequalities of capitalist Britain. And yet, despite these gulfs of class, it was and still remains a nation united by national loyalty which sometimes bridges these divisions:

‘It resembles a family…who has rich relations who have to be kow-towed to and poor relations who are horribly sat upon…Still it is a family. It has its own private language and its common memories, and at the approach of an enemy it closes its ranks.’

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So the nation was ‘closing ranks’ in 1940 and uniting against the common enemy of Nazism; but its land forces had been decisively beaten in France and Belgium. Orwell touched on a key reason as to just how this happened: The British and French economies, geared to profit, could not compete with the power of the state-led German economy. The 1939-40 campaign was a ‘physical debunking’ of capitalism in Europe. This was why Orwell’s vision of joining patriotism and democratic socialism was so poignant and urgent. Patriotism alone, for all its strength, could not defeat the power of a planned economy geared solely to the German war machine, which had proved its might repeatedly up to the evacuation at Dunkirk. Socialist planning of Britain’s economy was therefore needed to close the gap on Germany. Again we see Orwell’s incredible vision of what was necessary for the preservation of British democracy: anticipating the widespread mobilisation of the Home Front (such as the enlistment of a massive female workforce) that would occur within a year. Such a move would not only revive the listless capitalist economy; if combined with deeper democracy and social justice, it could bridge those profound gulfs of class that still separated Orwell’s countrymen:

‘It is very necessary that industry should be nationalised, but it is more necessary that such monstrosities as butlers and ‘private incomes’ should disappear forthwith…Given equality of sacrifice, the morale of a country like England would probably be unbreakable.’

And so it proved to be. He knew that the working class could ‘suffer terrible things’, but it was also imperative that ‘some kind of proof that a better life is ahead for themselves and their children’ was provided.

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Orwell called it ‘The English Revolution’, and was keen to stress that ‘this does not mean red flags and street fighting, [but] a fundamental shift of power.’ For this he drew up a six-point plan that included a host of visionary, far-reaching measures that post-war Britain did in fact sooner or later experience. The nationalisations of the 1945 Attlee government, independence for India, Harold Wilson’s educational reforms, even the 1999 UK minimum wage were all contained in embryonic form in Orwell’s manifesto. They show his incredible foresight, and capturing of a key theme in British social history: a re-occurring, progressive national instinct. It was a remarkable achievement.

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The immediate danger posed to Britain by Nazism had generated momentum for great changes in the political and economic life of society. The war provided the impetus for Orwell’s vision, and proof of his belief that ‘Patriotism has nothing to do with conservatism’, but in fact goes hand in hand with social justice. In Britain’s most dangerous years, it brought all classes together in a common struggle to preserve British democracy, and after the war this unity generated the birth of the modern welfare state; one stage closer to the ‘English Revolution’ Orwell had envisioned. For our current generation, still basking in the haze of a patriotic summer, his message in The Lion and the Unicorn has immediate significance. If we can again harness our national pride with popular sentiment for greater equality, as the wartime generation boldly did, we have a chance to follow those great accomplishments and take another step along the road to Orwell’s vision:

‘Nothing ever stands still. We must add to our heritage or lose it, we must grow greater or grow less, we must go forward or backward. I believe in England, and I believe that we shall go forward.’

Additional Research

·         George Orwell was declared unfit of military service but later joined the Home Guard which he envisioned as a ‘Revolutionary People’s Militia’. Already leaning towards the Socialist left, Orwell’s wartime experiences led him to crave the ‘English Revolution’ against the bourgeois class system that The Lion and the Unicorn described.

·         The combination of the lion and unicorn on the Royal Coat of Arms of the United Kingdom dates back to 1603 when James VI of Scotland also became James I of England bringing together the lion of England and the unicorn of Scotland. The lion stands for bravery, strength and royalty whilst the unicorn is an unpredictable and fearsome creature and so is chained down.

·         Clement Atlee’s government brought in many welfare reforms which can be closely linked to Orwell’s work including the NHS, free education for all children up to the age of 15 and statutory sick pay entitlement for all workers thus going some way to bridge the huge gulf which had existed between the classes before WWII.

·         George Orwell was declared unfit of military service but later joined the Home Guard which he envisioned as a ‘Revolutionary People’s Militia’. Already leaning towards the Socialist left, Orwell’s wartime experiences led him to crave the ‘English Revolution’ against the bourgeois class system that The Lion and the Unicorn described.

·         The combination of the lion and unicorn on the Royal Coat of Arms of the United Kingdom dates back to 1603 when James VI of Scotland also became James I of England bringing together the lion of England and the unicorn of Scotland. The lion stands for bravery, strength and royalty whilst the unicorn is an unpredictable and fearsome creature and so is chained down.

·         Clement Atlee’s government brought in many welfare reforms which can be closely linked to Orwell’s work including the NHS, free education for all children up to the age of 15 and statutory sick pay entitlement for all workers thus going some way to bridge the huge gulf which had existed between the classes before WWII.

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