From Eric Blair to Tony Blair

By Mason, Mark | The Spectator, June 5, 1999 | Go to article overview

From Eric Blair to Tony Blair


Mason, Mark, The Spectator


SO CHILLING was the novel Nineteen Eighty-Four's description of a totalitarian state that the phrases `Orwellian nightmare' and `Big Brother' have passed into the language. They tend to be used when talking about foreign regimes, communist or fascist. But the 50th anniversary, this month, of the publication of George Orwell's classic is a fitting time to reflect on how much of it has already come true in supposedly free and open Britain. The signs are that the trend is set to worsen.

It is particularly ironic that the anniversary should fall under this government, given that the novel was written by a man named Blair. Quite what Eric Arthur would have thought of Tony's administration is hard to tell, but he certainly seems to have foreseen certain elements of it. `It was always the women,' notes Winston Smith, `and above all the young ones, who were the most bigoted adherents of the Party, the swallowers of slogans.' This was written when Blair's Babes were mere twinkles in their parents' eyes. Orwell was similarly prescient about Peter Mandelson, whose part in the novel is taken by Winston's colleague, Syme: `He venerated Big Brother, he rejoiced over victories, he hated heretics, not merely with sincerity but with a sort of restless zeal . . . Yet a faint air of disreputability always clung to him.' Eventually the Party loses patience with Syme and vaporises him.

Big Brother believed that `democracy was impossible and the Party was the guardian of democracy'. Ken Livingstone no doubt would appreciate this telling analogy. Even the current government's language was predicted by Orwell. He called it 'Newspeak' - perfect for New Labour's New Britain. The tenth edition of the Newspeak Dictionary achieves a `reduction in the number of verbs' making it ideal for a Blair conference speech.

Cheap, if wry, points. But Newspeak's purpose is also being fulfilled in a more sinister way. Syme explains to Winston that `the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought. In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it.' Nineties' political correctness is achieving precisely that result, and not just with words. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, the Party doctors photographs to remove `un-persons' from history. It is the US Postal Service's policy to airbrush cigarettes from the mouths of smokers commemorated on stamps, such as James Dean and Humphrey Bogart. Last year a Bristol tourist brochure removed a cigar from Isambard Kingdom Brunel's mouth because it was `inappropriate for a potential role model to be seen smoking'.

These moves may be subtle and incremental, but that is precisely where their danger lies. The small but perturbing steps Britain is taking towards the world of Nineteen Eighty-Four go unnoticed -- especially in the shadow of the distraction that saw Orwell at his most prescient: `The Lottery, with its weekly pay-out of enormous prizes, was the one public event to which the proles paid serious attention. It was probable that there were some millions of proles for whom the Lottery was the principal if not the only reason for remaining alive.' This mindset also allows the masses to be whipped into collective hysteria - the Two Minutes Hate, a daily ritual in which everyone shouts abuse at the image of Emmanuel Goldstein, a traitor who advocated freedom of speech and thought. …

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