Why did the Columnist not Bark?

A kind friend has handed me an item from the Western Mail, in which one Terry Mackie, evidently very cross with Leighton Andrews, purports to suffer an Orwellian nightmare. A glance over this yellowing cutting leaves me pondering whether this might be a jape perpetrated by some mischievous undergraduate. It contains garbled quotations from one of the worst pieces that George Orwell ever inflicted on an audience.

If this is indeed a hoax, then the joke is on me. I will therefore wait a few days, in the hope that somebody will enlighten me, before I publish a few reflections.

My attention has been drawn to the electronic text of Terry Mackie’s piece ‘School Report’, which can be found here: http://www.walesonline.co.uk/news/education-news/2012/12/06/school-report-terry-mackie-91466-32370946/

Terry himself appears to be a palpably non-hoax entity, and I shall proceed on that assumption. His article contains a number of fallacies, and it is further weakened by appeal to the authority of George Orwell: not at his best, unfortunately, but to an exuberantly inaccurate and highly intemperate rant that his editor should have sent back for a rewrite.

To begin with, I should note that Terry starts off well, questioning the widespread assumption that organizations are necessarily made more efficient by amalgamating, enlarging, and centralizing them. Without referring to any particular issue in Wales, I submit that the evidence simply does not support this assumption. If we had the Norwegian system, for example, we would have well over 200 education authorities and the same number of primary health care authorities. However, Terry is quite in error when he declares this view to be a suddenly-imposed whim. On the contrary, it has been part of the received wisdom in political and functionary circles for decades. I am therefore surprised that Terry is surprised.

Secondly, while I believe some aspects of Leighton’s approach to be seriously in error, I know that I am not the only one who respects his energy and commitment. This makes him stand out amongst too many of his colleagues. At least he is an active politician, rather than a bone-idle poseur or an over-promoted functionary. And Terry is way off-beam in his characterization of other aspects of Leighton’s policies. I shall elucidate this point briefly before examining  ‘Notes on Nationalism;, which George Orwell inflicted on the readers of Polemic in 1945.

Terry’s comments seem to come in response to the continuing controversies about examinations and qualifications. I must own that there is force in Terry’s view that Leighton was at fault in letting the matter come to such a pass. Indeed, successive governments have tended far to readily to let policy drift, and to pay far too little attention to the details of its execution. Most of us were unaware of the goalpost-shifting that Whitehall and Westminster had made part of the game. However, what the Tories did this time was beyond the shifting of goalposts. They not only dug up the turf, but carried it off to another site. To Leighton’s credit, he got on top of the problem immediately. I still believe that the damage could have been avoided altogether, but the talent of damage limitation is too rare; Leighton demonstrated that he has the gift, and exercised it. Credit is due him for that.

Credit is also due to him for his determination to bring our qualifications framework closer to international norms. The drive to early specialization is stifling for the individual, culturally divisive, economically deleterious, and bad for society as a whole. It originated in late Victorian military reforms, did not catch on in Scotland, and has not significantly caught on beyond the reach of Westminster and Whitehall. Pedagogically, culturally, and economically, the kind of broad curriculum that Leighton is advocating will improve life-chances for the individual, enrich our culture, and prepare people better to contribute to our economy.

The anachronistic rigid specialization that Terry supports does not even merit the description of ‘insular’. Since it pertains only to part of an island, we might charitably describe it as ‘peninsular’. To call Leighton’s policy ‘nationalist’ might be confusing, since that word carries so many senses. However, Terry makes it clear that he uses ‘nationalist’ to denote some sort of narrow bigotry. Since Leighton’s intent is clearly to break away from the peninsular narrowness of the status quo, this accusation fails.

Terry fails again when he attributes some insight to that article on Polemic. In particular, he asserts: ‘In 1945, George Orwell published his “Notes on Nationalism” essay, warning: “Celtic nationalism is not the same thing as anglophobia. Its motive force is a belief in the past and future greatness of the Celtic peoples, and it has a strong tinge of racialism.

“The Celt is supposed to be spiritually superior to the Saxon (simpler, more creative, less vulgar, less snobbish, etc) but the usual power hunger is there under the surface.”

Orwell is scarily accurate in his fact and fiction. Nightmare.’ (My emphasis – TS.) It is hard to believe that Terry has given the piece more than a cursory glance. Had I been Humphrey Slater, on receiving the typescript of ‘Notes on Nationalism; I should have asked the author to define his terms a great deal clearer, to remedy the scattershot blast of factual errors, and to focus the piece coherently.

To help with the discussion, here is the opening of the piece:

‘By ‘nationalism’ I mean first of all the habit of assuming that human beings can be classified like insects and that whole blocks of millions or tens of millions of people can be confidently labelled ‘good’ or ‘bad’*. But secondly — and this is much more important — I mean the habit of identifying oneself with a single nation or other unit, placing it beyond good and evil and recognising no other duty than that of advancing its interests. Nationalism is not to be confused with patriotism. Both words are normally used in so vague a way that any definition is liable to be challenged, but one must draw a distinction between them, since two different and even opposing ideas are involved. By ‘patriotism’ I mean devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force on other people. Patriotism is of its nature defensive, both militarily and culturally. Nationalism, on the other hand, is inseparable
from the desire for power. The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and more prestige, not for himself but for the nation or other unit in which he has chosen to sink his own individuality.’

The author declares himself opposed to stereotyping and bigotry, and in this we must support him while reminding ourselves that the ad hominem fallacy would not invalidate the principle even though he goes on to perpetrate several manifestations of both. We must still oppose them even though he advances no evidence for his assertion that his ‘nationalism’ of necessity involves a desire to expand and overcome. The waters are further muddies by the following footnote:

‘* Nations, and even vaguer entities such as the Catholic Church or the proletariat, are commonly thought of as individuals and often referred to as ‘she’. Patently absurd remarks such as ‘Germany is naturally treacherous’ are to be found in any newspaper one opens and reckless generalizations about national character (‘The Spaniard is a natural aristocrat’ or ‘Every Englishman is a hypocrite’) are uttered by almost everyone. Intermittently these generalizations are seen to be unfounded, but the habit of making them persists, and people of professedly international outlook, e.g., Tolstoy or Bernard Shaw, are often guilty of them.’

All of this is accurate enough, as far as it goes. However, group identities are far more nuanced – fuzzier, even – that the author will allow, and perceptions from both within them and outside a fortiori even more so. Quite why Terry thinks that this conceptual muddle supports his ill-conceived attack on Leighton’s curriculum and qualification policy is completely obscure. The obscurity deepens when he look at the section of the article on ‘Celtic Nationalism’.

Here is the text of this particular disquisition:  ‘Celtic Nationalism. Welsh, Irish and Scottish nationalism have points of difference but are alike in their anti-English orientation. Members of all three movements have opposed the war while continuing to describe themselves as pro-Russian, and the lunatic fringe has even contrived to be simultaneously pro-Russian and pro-Nazi. But Celtic nationalism is not the same thing as anglophobia. Its motive force is a belief in the past and future greatness of the Celtic peoples, and it has a strong tinge of racialism. The Celt is supposed to be spiritually superior to the Saxon — simpler, more creative, less vulgar, less snobbish, etc. — but the usual power hunger is there under the surface. One symptom of it is the delusion that Eire, Scotland or even Wales could preserve its independence unaided and owes nothing to British protection. Among writers, good examples of this school of thought are Hugh McDiarmid and Sean O’Casey. No modern Irish writer, even of the stature of Yeats or Joyce, is completely free from traces of nationalism.’

It’s interesting that there is no reference to the Isle of Man, Cornwall, or Brittany. This may, of course, be because he has no knowledge about those three countries. However, since he advances no evidence about Wales, we have no grounds for supposing that he knew anything about this country either. This is not, of course, to ascribe any merit to his animadversions on Ireland and Scotland, since nothing he says gives us any occasion to suppose that he had read very much – or, indeed, anything at all in respect of most of them – of what they wrote.

The assertion about alleged spiritual superiority is clearly drawn from the ideas of Matthew Arnold. Despairing at the dull worldliness of the Philistines, as he unfairly dubbed some of the middle classes of his own country, he fancied that he discerned ‘notes’ of Celtic character in the work of certain of the great writers in the English language. Unhampered by any knowledge of the Celtic languages – which he anyway thought should be utterly extirpated – he proposed to rescue the dreamy, impractical Celts from their chronic incompetence by anglicizing them, and to save the English middle classes from their dull Philistinism by feeding them bite-sized chunks of Macpherson, Lady Charlotte Guest, et al.  (There’s a rather nice (stricto sensu) picture of some of the fallout from this ideology in Galsworthy’s Francie’s Fourpenny Foreigner.) It is, as they say in Bryncoch, trist iawn feri sad that a few people in the Celtic countries have given houseroom to this  guff. It is, however, given its origin and purpose, quite bizarre that GO uses it in an attempt to attack alleged exponents of something he calls ‘Celtic nationalism’. And there is worse to come.

I once heard Hugh MacDiarmid condemn Who’s Who for describing Anglophobia as a mere hobby for him. Expelled from the SNP for Communism and from the CP for nationalist deviation, having served in the British Army and the Norwegian merchant marine, and worked in various civilian capacities in both Scotland and England and married a Cornishwoman, HMD contradicted himself as much as any of us, including GO himself. (He also won the distinction of being on one of Mr. Eric Blair’s little lists.) In any event, he was statistically a highly atypical exponent of Scottish nationalism. Why does GO not refer, for example, to Sorley MacLean, Hamish Henderson, or Lewis Grassic Gibbon? I own that they undermine his thesis, but it would have made his exposition a less distorted one.

GO’s Irish references, although slightly less exiguous than his Scottish flight of fancy, are a very strange selection. Seán O’Casey famously quarreled with the mainstream national movement, left the country, and settled in England where he wrote, inter alia, a theater piece dedicated to the Battle of Britain. Yeats published in England, moved easily in its literary and esoteric circles (I loved the description of your man returning, exhausted, from a séance in Wimbledon), delighted in railing at his compatriots above all others, and reflected, in Easter 1916, ‘For England may keep faith, / For all that is done and said.’ Joyce denounced and satirized much that most Irish people valued, left the country for good, and famously insisted on describing himself as a British subject.

On the point of British protection for Eire [sic], several points arise. In the first place, historically most Irish nationalists had in fact been monarchists, seeking to change the relationship with the Crown rather than to sever it. As a consequence of events within GO’s lifetime, this proportion dwindled drastically. Secondly, many Irish nationalists of the outright separatist tendency certainly concurred with his view and, indeed, have successors on the Irish political scene today, largely in Fine Gael and the LP. Thirdly, there are others who concur up to a point, but view the protection allegedly provided as of the kind offered by some of Damon Runyon’s characters. This view has been echoed within the Irish diplomatic service, who have spoken of aiming to place their State in a position on the ‘Bonn-Boston axis’, which would afford it more room for manoeuvre.

GO’s discussion of other varieties of nationalism (here, I must emphasize, I am using the word in its normal sense) inspires no more confidence. In his references to Zionism, for example, it is plain that he is unaware of the old-established phenomenon of Christian Zionism. Evidently, he had not read Daniel Deronda – surprising for an English man of letters of his stature.

Just what on Earth did GO think he was doing in this rambling string of unfocused rants? In his fictional work, he makes related points precisely and trenchantly. In other essays, he is even more effective than in the novels. A charitable interpretation is that Humphrey Slater had asked him for a piece at unfeasibly short notice, causing him to throw some undigested notes together, type them up, and stick them in an envelope. While GO astray is far more interesting than most of us plodding our usual straight paths, Notes on Nationalism is amongst the last pieces of his work from which anybody could hope to gain anything.

The question to which we must return, therefore, is this: why did Terry Mackie appeal to it in his attack on Leighton Andrews’ curriculum and examination policies? There are three chief faults to Notes on Nationalism. Firstly, it stretches the word ‘nationalism’ way beyond any workably meaningful sense. Secondly, it is shockingly light on evidence. Thirdly, the little evidence GO presents on the thought and practice of actual nationalists is wildly inaccurate. Terry claims, however, that it accurately represents something that he purports to discern in Leighton’s policies. Terry objects to Leighton’s centralizing tendencies, and I would agree that Leighton has yet to demonstrate that centralization would in fact promote the goals he holds out. However, Terry makes it clear in other interventions that he has no objection in principle to Ministerial intervention. Moreover, the centralization issue has no bearing on the matter of curriculum planning, where Terry purports to discern nationalist tendencies.

It is curious that one so writative as Terry shies clear of discussion. He claims, – in English – not to understand the language (English) of my comments on his article, which is written in English. This is, of course, nothing more than good old bluster. For some reason or other, despite being one of our most eminent donneurs de leçons, he does not want to explain why he opposes the proposal to return our curriculum to international norms. It will therefore be necessary to work this out from the corpus of Terry’s published writings.

The short answer, judging by his output via Trinity Mirror, is that curriculum is not a central concern of his. He has an exemplary regard for the chances in life of pupils and student, but would appear to take both form and content of the matter researched, taught, and learned as read. Again, he seems to decry centralization (as any sensible certain would) but, seeking remedy for wrongs that he discerns, calls for intervention from the centre without making clear in what parameters this should operate. If he has in fact dealt clearly with these matters elsewhere, than I hope that he will share his aperçus with us in his columns. I also hope that, whether or not he owns up, he will renounce the slack use of language exemplified by his employment of ‘insular’ and ‘nationalism’, refrain from deploying the philosophus dixit fallacy – a very bad example indeed, it is submitted, for a writer on education to set.

Notes on Nationalism would more properly be called Brainstorm on Bigotry. In so far as it touches on actual nationalism, it is both inaccurate and unhelpful. In the context of  George Orwell’s writings as a whole, this is not surprising. He displays little interest in the matter, less knowledge, and the least understanding. You only have to compare Homage to Catalonia with, say, Gerald Brenan’s The Spanish Labyrinth to marvel at GO’s achievement at not perceiving the importance of the national question in the conflict to the south of the Pyrenees. The saddest aspect of Notes on Nationalism is that its author violates the principles that he would expound so powerfully in Politics and the English Language. Slack language, he argues, engenders slack thought, and slack thought makes pernicious thought possible. ‘Now, it is clear that the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes: it is not due simply to the bad influence of this or that individual writer. But an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely. A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts. The point is that the process is reversible. Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble. If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration: so that the fight against bad English is not frivolous and is not the exclusive concern of professional writers.’

The faults of Notes on Nationalism would be consistent with a combination of haste and deference. Humphrey Slater might have rung up, saying “Eric, I need 5,000-ish words on nationalism by Thursday.’ George Orwell being George Orwell, one would not presume to exercise an editor’s normal prerogatives, and anyway there was a deadline to meet. Terry Mackie’s resorting to the feeble authority of this lamentable piece to cover his own lack of argument will not earn him the gratitude of Orwell’s admirers. If Terry is going to deploy important concepts such as ‘nationalist’ as yah-boo-sucks playground language, then it will be harder to persuade people not to use terms such as ‘unionist’ in the same way. Whether or not he acknowledges his original thought, we may hope that he will make himself a pot of tea and a pile of toast, open George Orwell’s essays at Politics and the English Language, and read slowly and carefully.

Leave a Reply