Friday, September 07, 2007

No bother about Big Brother: full text

No bother about Big Brother

George Orwell would have been delighted to know he was being spied upon by the state. It's a badge of honour - just ask any stroppy teenage Maoist.
Ian Williams
Guardian Comment is Free

September 6, 2007 2:30 PM | Printable version

The recent revelation from opened UK government files that George Orwell was kept under surveillance by British security services has led to lots of playful banter about Big Brother. But the tidings should have been underwhelming.

From the establishment point of view it would have been gross dereliction of duty not to keep an eye on a self-professed revolutionary. It is difficult to believe it would have surprised Orwell too much, and more likely he would have been proud that as a mere hack he had excited that much attention with his writings and doings.

When I was a teenage Maoist, and unemployed for a long time, the local police Special Branch officer in Liverpool sidled up to me at a meeting and commiserated. " I hear you're having difficulty finding a job", he grinned, and maliciously recited a list of applications I'd recently made. I was not ecstatic, but I could not resent it too much. Indeed it was almost a badge of merit that the forces of the bourgeois state thought a naive and stroppy youth worthy of scrutiny, so I felt no resentment. After all, if your intention is to overthrow a state that you consider repressive, then how could you cry foul if they took relatively moderate counter-measures?

It is not as if they hauled me off for thoughtcrime to room 101 and beat the bejasus out of me with rubber truncheons. Indeed, in my maturity I had an enjoyable interview with the north-west director of the Economic League, which maintained a blacklist of troublemakers for subscribing companies, and was happy to help him publicise his employers' shabby treatment of him, which had led to his defection with the lists.

However, while in the novel 1984 Big Brother's representative O'Brien showed signs of omniscience about what his victims thought as well what they did, the amusing part of the Orwell file is that the local plods did not have a clue what their target was up to, which is one reason they commented on his "Bohemian" attire.

In fact, if they had gone for a chat with him, he would probably have told them, in great detail what he was doing, but one can see that superiors would be worried about the exposure of their officers to seductively seditious ideas. Indeed, back in the 1980s a Special Branch officer seconded to the diplomatic protection group unconsciously revealed the dangers. Charged with protecting the PLO envoy to Britain, he had to go to lots of meetings with him. He told me "You know, I never realised, the Palestinians have really had some shitty treatment, haven't they?"

As it happens, the plods were overruled during the war by the more sophisticated MI5 who realised that the war had changed things in general and Orwell too. At least one can be sure that the case officer involved was not a crypto-communist of the kind that happily overlooked actual communist spies Philby, Burgess and MacLean, since the Communist party hated Orwell with a passion that has scarcely died down 60 years later.

That was shown with the eagerness to attack Orwell for the list he compiled of people he suspected were Communists or sympathizers who should not be employed by the agency that the Labour government had set up to promulgate democratic socialism abroad. "Snitch" was one of the kindest epithets heaped on him, appropriately enough by another public-school wannabe prole, Alexander Cockburn. Orwell's accusers were generally urbane and forgiving about those who hauled off thought-criminals to the basement of the Lubyanka never to emerge again but unforgiving about Orwell's proxy personnel management.

Orwell, as often, has the last word about such Vishinskish language when he defined of the totalitarian mindset: "To admit that an opponent might be both honest and intelligent is felt to be intolerable. It is more immediately satisfying to shout that he is a fool or a scoundrel, or both, than to find out what he is really like."

W Ogilvie, the Home Office official who questioned the dull constabulary judgment, was clearly much more in that school of thought than the Gulag nostalgics who continue to bite at the ankles of Orwell's reputation.

Sadly the authorities concerned will learn no lessons from all of this. The FBI in the US and the reformed Special Branch in the UK continue to attract the prejudiced and the ignorant - and the results of recent persecutions in the US suggest that their evidence should also be almost totally discounted. The insubstantial types of evidence against Orwell may have been enough to put him in the dock in the contemporary United States if the plods had not started chasing Muslims instead of Reds.

And almost tragically, for most people today, "Big Brother" no longer evokes images of totalitarian control, but of a successful mind-deadening TV show of the kind that Orwell's Big Brother designed to keep the masses' minds off the real world.

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