Russell Square is a bustling and leafy area in the middle of London. It is home to many great institutions that in their own way represent British history, including the School of Oriental and African Studies, a university founded to train colonial administrators, and the British Museum, a beautiful collection of artefacts collected from around the world. Between these two institutions steeped in controversial colonial history sits Senate House, the striking building that Orwell modelled the exterior of his Ministry of Truth upon in his famous novel 1984. Its white art deco façade seems to rise endlessly into the sky, making it one of London’s most striking, and arguably austere, buildings. The proximity of these institutions to a building that plays such a key role in Orwell’s most famous work is prescient in times when 1984 is being invoked to criticise Black Lives Matter’s attempt to get the UK to recognise the legacy of colonialism, most notably in the toppling of slave trader Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol. In particular, the following quote from 1984 has been used by many on social media to criticize this act:
…every statue and street building have been renamed, every date has been altered. And the process is continuing day by day and minute by minute. History has stopped. Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right.
Those who have shared this as if it denounces the felling of statues like Colston’s have misunderstood 1984 and George Orwell. Orwell’s point is better illustrated by the fact that the statue stood for 125 years in the first place. The spaces we inhabit act as tributes to historical individuals whose true impact and role in history is often erased by foregrounding more favourable characteristics. Colston’s statue did not engage with his role in the slave trade, instead describing him as ‘virtuous and wise’. Where Orwell’s statues are “renamed” ours are recategorised so that Colston, and many others, are remembered by their virtue rather than their violence.
This discussion has never been just about Edward Colston, or even statues. It is about why our society is so protective over the dominant, but incorrect or obscuring, narratives of history. The characters in Orwell’s two most famous fictional works, Animal Farm and 1984, are served narratives that reinforce dominating power structures through false tellings of history. This is what Orwell stood against: the protagonists of both Animal Farm and 1984 were not the people supporting the status quo but were instead subversive thinkers, in the case of Winston Smith of 1984, and revolutionaries, in the case of the animals of Animal farm.
Winston Smith, the protagonist of 1984, rebelled by collecting parts of the cultural legacy cut out from the dominant narrative. The nursery rhyme line “Oranges and Lemons, ring the bells of St Clement’s” led to him learning about a history which wasn’t endorsed by the near-omnipotent Big Brother, from a small antiques shop in the proletariat area of the city. This simple fragment of history led him on a fateful journey to a showdown with authority in the infamous torture chamber Room 101. The experience of learning about history through fragments collected outside of the mainstream will be familiar to anyone who takes an interest in British colonial history, which is noticeably absent from the national curriculum and more jingoistic popular histories of Britain.
Orwell was critical of the status quo and was no shrinking wallflower when it came to challenging power. His work is so often used to invoke the USSR and communist dictatorship, however, it is also evocative of some episodes in the history of the British Empire. A particularly famous example is the burning of documents relating to the detention of over a million Kikuyus in settlement camps in Kenya during the 1950s as a response to the threat of a small nationalist insurgency known as Mau Mau. This has left historians unable to see the incarceration from the perspective of the British government and prevented the extent of the atrocities from becoming widely known to the public until the mid-noughties. Only in 2011 did the government admit that they had continued to keep 200,000 documents secret from the public for over five decades, some of which showed that the government had covered up the systematic abuse in the internment camps.
This nuance is lost on many. In the Daily Express Leo Mckinstrey writes:
For most of us 1984 was a warning.
For radical agitators it was a blueprint.
McKinstry is right of course in saying that Orwell meant 1984 as a warning, but he is wrong that it is the ‘radical agitators’ of the left using it as a blueprint. It is not Black Lives Matter who present a threat to history; many have been very clear about their desire for a broader history curriculum and for more context to be given to British history. The people who are using 1984 as a guide are some of the politicians running our country. Our prime minister, Boris Johnson, a man famous for lying, has recently claimed ignorance over footballer Marcus Rashford’s campaign that forced a major government U-turn and had have his own words quoted back to him by the leader of the opposition to remind him of his original policy about COVID-19 and care home safety. This is not to mention his unconditional support for Dominic Cummings whose trip to Durham was painted as a reasonable decision by government ministers while most of the country was shocked by the audacity with which they revised the meaning of the lockdown conditions.
This has been a persistent problem since Johnson became leader of his party: during the 2019 General Election an independent fact checker found that 88% of Conservative Party adverts contained lies, while the Tories rebranded their twitter as ‘Fact Check UK’, a fake fact-checking service. This enduring problem with truth from our current government recently led to an anonymous civil servant tweeting the following from a civil service twitter account:
Arrogant and offensive.
Can you imagine working with these truth twisters?
If social media existed in the universe of 1984 then Winston Smith, who was a civil servant tasked with rewriting history, would most likely have written something similar from his desk in the Ministry of Truth, given the chance.
What many who are invoking Orwell seem to have missed is that those with power are the ones that control the narrative of history. The very nature of protest suggests that people feel they do not have enough power to influence the course of, and telling of, history. Orwell would not be surprised that his work would be used to smear protesters that Donald Trump has called ‘Anti-fascists’. He recognised that becoming part of the cultural canon was part of reinforcing the narrative of those in power; he is afterall the man who wrote that “who controls the past controls the future, who controls the present controls the past”. The crowning irony is, of course, that Orwell was a self-professed anti-fascist who went to Spain to fight alongside anarchists against the fascist armies of General Franco. This was the cognitive dissonance that Orwell sought to capture in the word doublespeak. A term in the fictional language of 1984 termed Newspeak which was designed to reduce the possibility of subversive thoughts. People are concerned that history is being re-written in front of our eyes. This is a valid concern. The phrase ‘history is written by the victors’ has always been true. However, in this epoch there are new challenges ranging from politicians who are no longer held to account for their pathologically clumsy lying such as Johnson and Trump, to the social media echo chambers that have seen fake news so successfully spread. One thing is for certain: against this backdrop it is unlikely that Black Lives Matter is the movement that will lead us into the world of 1984.
Jake Smaje works in data governance for a large INGO in the WASH sector and is the trustee of United Social Ventures, a livelihood charity in Uganda, having previously worked in a range of roles in the charity sector in Rwanda, Kenya and Bangladesh. Since completing his BA in History at the University of Leeds in 2016 with a specialism in African History, he’s held a continued interest in the political economy of the Global South.