Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Review: The Road to Wigan Pier

The Road to Wigan Pier by George Orwell (1937)

A remarkable thing about Orwell's writing is that even his prose rises so easily to the level of literature.  The Road to Wigan Pier is, at the end of the day, a work of sociology and a polemic call to action.  Orwell's concise yet evocative style provides a moving account of working class life in the coal mines and industrial cities of Northern England in the 1930s.  In fact, he does such a good job that anyone who pounds the table about poverty in Britain after 1955 looks like a fool to anyone who recalls the true privations and hardships that Orwell so movingly records

The second half of the book has dated very badly.  There Orwell gives a very open and honest account of why he became a Socialist, his idea of a proper Socialist society and what he thinks of fellow Socialists who are little more than poseurs and opportunists.  It's reasonably thought out, though one is astonished that Orwell seemed to regard the economy as a zero-sum game and it never occurred to him that the way to raise the poor out of their misery was largely a matter of making everyone more prosperous.  The idea of wealth creation never seems to have crossed his mind.

Worse, after over seventy years, we have a tremendous wealth of hindsight with which to judge the Socialist experiment; how it has been an abject failure across the board resulting in everything bankrupt welfare states at one end and murderous Communist and Fascist regimes at the other.  It is tragic that Orwell never saw that what he regarded as aberrations of Socialism were, in fact, the core of an ideology that did not understand human nature, never delivered what it promised and proved a ready-made template for every busybody, bureaucrat or totalitarian who craved more power.

The ironic thing is that Orwell did actually see one great truth, but he never recognised it as truth.  He observed that the working classes saw Socialism as being nothing more than being allowed to live their lives as they'd always lived them, holding on to the ideals, beliefs and institutions that they loved and were familiar with, but where they were paid more, worked less and treated decently.  Ironically, that's all they did want, expected to receive when the Welfare State reared up, and what they were denied as the Socialists unveiled their contempt for Britain, her history and her people as the old Establishment died and the New Political Class rose in its place; a class that looks more like something out of a couple of Mr Orwell's later, more prophetic books.  This is why so many in Britain today see the fruits of Socialism as making Britons feel like strangers in there own country.

Perhaps someone needs to make take another trip along that road to find that elusive pier.