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How George Orwell predicted Brexit and Boris Johnson's victory

As we mark the 70th anniversary of George Orwell's death on Tuesday, Richard Bradford looks at how the 'Nineteen Eighty Four' author predicted the rise of the EU and indicated why Britain would alienate itself from it


Vision: Orwell foresaw the polarities between the liberal metropolitan elite and the working-class heartlands with regard to their outlook on foreigners

Vision: Orwell foresaw the polarities between the liberal metropolitan elite and the working-class heartlands with regard to their outlook on foreigners

New book: Professor Richard Bradford

New book: Professor Richard Bradford

Orwell: A Man of Our Time by Richard Bradford

Orwell: A Man of Our Time by Richard Bradford


Vision: Orwell foresaw the polarities between the liberal metropolitan elite and the working-class heartlands with regard to their outlook on foreigners

George Orwell wrote in Tribune magazine of listening in on a conversation in a hotel between two businessmen. One affirmed that the Poles should be "sent back to their own country" and the other added that they were "degraded in their morals": "'Their ways are not our ways,' he concluded piously."

The men agreed that these foreigners were taking over the medical profession, stealing jobs elsewhere from "our lads" and occupying a disproportionate amount of the limited housing stock. This was 1947, but it might have been an exchange between those who despised the EU open-border policy and would campaign and vote for Leave in the 2016 Brexit referendum. Orwell was astonished, given that most of the Poles who had settled in the UK after World War II were hard-working refugees or ex-service personnel. Little seems to have changed. No convincing evidence was presented by UKIP, the Brexit Party, or the hard-right Conservatives that immigration has damaged the UK economy, let alone deprived members of the indigenous population of jobs and housing, but a belief that foreigners are the cause of the UK's afflictions was the keynote of the anti-EU campaign.

Orwell foresaw very much. Some might be puzzled by why the so-called 'red-wall' of northern English constituencies voted first for Leave and then for Johnson. Consider Orwell's essay 'England Your England' (1941): "The famous 'insularity' and 'xenophobia' of the English is far stronger in the working class than in the bourgeoisie… the English working class are outstanding in their abhorrence of foreign habits. Even when they are obliged to live abroad… they refuse either to accustom themselves to foreign food or to learn foreign languages… the insularity of the English, their refusal to take foreigners seriously, is a folly that has to be paid for very heavily from time to time."

Orwell goes so far as to claim that the 'working classes', the 'Tommies' who were in Europe in 1914-18 and who were "first in contact with foreigners to an extent that was [then] rarely possible… brought back a hatred for all Europeans". He was not referring to the Germans, their enemies, but to the indigenous civilian population of France who they were supposedly defending. At the other end of the spectrum we have Orwell's 'intelligentsia', who are Europeanised.

"England is perhaps the only great country whose intellectuals are ashamed of their own nationality. In left-wing circles it is always felt that there is something slightly disgraceful in being an Englishman and that it is a duty to snigger at every institution." Once more Orwell foresees the polarities that have recently become evident between the so-called liberal metropolitan elite who despise nationalist insularity, and vote Remain, and the working-class heartlands of Leave who espouse the notion of "taking back control" - from foreigners.

In a later pamphlet 'The English People' (1947) Orwell chides the English for always preferring "instinct to logic, and character to intelligence" and tells them to "get rid of their downright contempt for cleverness," which would be echoed by Michael Gove's dismissal of 'experts'.

Orwell goes on to state that the English must "stop despising foreigners. They [the English] are Europeans and ought to be aware of it". Soon, he predicts, they will face the prospect of a "United States of Europe". Churchill is wrongly credited as the foreseer of a European Union; Orwell did so first. A little later in 'Towards European Unity' (1947) he looks forward to the Common Market and what would eventually become the EU. The countries not controlled by the Soviets would recognise their shared liberal, democratic vested interests and accept that they must exchange their non-European empires for an economic union and eventually co-investment in federal agreements on fundamental employment and social rights.

Orwell also concedes that the UK, so closely bound up with its imperial legacy, will be the least enthusiastic participant and that America would do its best to dismantle the project. Long before the Treaty of Paris was even thought of, he foresaw 2016. The post-referendum Conservative Party invented the concept of 'Empire 2.0' and the then Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson declared that Britain's "friends outside the EU" would "jump at the chance of becoming our trading partners: We used to run the biggest empire the world has ever seen", which, he implies, will welcome us back as an amenable partner rather than oppressor and exploiter. Passing Orwell's grave in Sutton Courtenay churchyard one might have heard a droll guffaw.

Habitual Labour voters in the north of England seem to have accepted Johnson's promise of the sunlit uplands of expansion and prosperity, once we've freed ourselves from the interfering foreigners of the EU. When Orwell visited these areas in the 1930s researching The Road to Wigan Pier many people he met were fervent socialists and some were members of the Communist Party, but these were activists, and the population as a whole seemed to drift between states of helplessness and apathy.

In his diary, he records something else so disturbing that he chose to leave it out of the book. Leftist meetings were moderately popular but no speaker drew such enthusiastic crowds as Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Union of Fascists. In January 1936, Orwell writes, more than 700 people were packed into Barnsley Town Hall where Mosley preached a form of nationalist protectionism, the securing of British interests through their arrangements with the colonies, not their European competitors.

On May 13 last year, Featherstone Working Men's Club in Yorkshire was similarly overflowing with supporters of Nigel Farage, who promised to make the nation great again by a no-deal exit from the EU and an avoidance of humiliation at the hands of foreigners. Less than two miles away was a small business park, funded by the EU, which is the only regular source of employment in the area since the pits closed under Thatcher. Orwell witnessed the uglier face of mass populism long before it began to undermine liberal democracy. Nineteen Eighty Four, his most celebrated novel, is routinely treated as an exposure of Stalinist Communism as a regime just as brutal and totalitarian as Nazism. And so it is, but it also incorporates something of its author that his moderate-left fans might find unsettling.

The novel's protagonist, Winston Smith, believes that the 'proles' can liberate themselves from their ugly subservient state, while O'Brien, his nemesis, argues that they are content with mindlessness and that a regular supply of pornography, popular fiction, and cheap consumables will keep them subdued. And at this point we begin to suspect that Orwell has shifted his gaze from the suppressed of the Soviet bloc to the consumerist working classes of his own country. Throughout his 'As I Please' column, the most controversial feature of the Labour weekly Tribune during the war and through the mid-1940s, he gradually paints a portrait of working-class Britons as ideologically unaligned, low-life hedonists.

In 'The English People' (1947) Orwell considers the working-class addiction to what would eventually become the tabloid papers. "England tolerate[s] newspapers… of unheard-of-silliness, and these [produce] further stupefaction in the public, blinding their eyes to vitally important problems." The war had, for obvious reasons, pushed these "important problems" to the top of the agenda but by 1947, stupefaction had returned. He ventures that "the survival of free speech in England is partly the result of stupidity". In short, newspapers that deal largely in popular trash will guarantee their survival as a "free press".

Orwell suspects that the political outlook and moral compass of ordinary English people are determined by their addiction to these papers, that their ghoulish interest in reports on hangings will mean that capital punishment, which he abhors, will never be abolished, that their support for Labour amounts to faddish opportunism, and that proper literature will always come second to trash fiction whose popularity will be guaranteed by a mass readership.

Compare the presentation of the proles in Nineteen Eighty Four with Orwell's accounts of the working classes in his journalism and try to find differences; you will fail to do so. As an island nation, he writes in 'The English People', the English are "protected by geography from major disaster" which encourages "the narrow interests of the average man, the rather low level of English education, the contempt for 'highbrows'."

He could be presenting the current demographic and allegedly xenophobic mindset that some believe led to Brexit. If we accept the whispered consensus of the left-leaning media and intelligentsia, then the Leavers decided to detach themselves from Europe for the same reason that Orwell's proles in Nineteen Eighty Four refused to revolt: Head-in-the-sand insularity was preferable to the challenge of anything else.

Orwell's invention of 'doublethink' in Nineteen Eighty Four helped increase the sales of the book by 4,000pc in the US following Trump's inauguration. Everyone believed that the serial purveyor of 'fake news' was now the Big Brother of the White House.

Their fears were unfounded, as Trump's 2019 visit to Europe demonstrated. During his brief stay in Ireland, the US President commiserated with Leo Varadkar on the Taoiseach's problem with his 'wall', and reassured him: "I mean, we have a border situation in the United States, and you have one here… I think… it will [post-Brexit] work out very well, and also for you and your wall." Varadkar looked a little uncomfortable at Trump's notion of the Six Counties as a version of Mexico and any fears that Trump was the Machiavellian source of 'doublethink' was dispelled. This was the spectacle of the leader of the free world incautiously disclosing his stupidity.

Doublethink found a more welcoming host among the grotesque distortions of truth employed by the Leave campaign, from the £350 million promise on the bus to the assertion that 79 million Turks (the entire population) would soon be queueing as immigrants. Few took these claims seriously but the Brexit campaign has triumphed via its assumption that the electorate would regard as a democratic right its gleeful acceptance of lies as preferable to facts. With Brexit, doublethink rules.

Richard Bradford is Research Professor of English and Director of the Literary Biography Research Centre at Ulster University. His 'Orwell: A Man of Our Times' is out on Thursday, published by Bloomsbury Caravel

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