Gary Gibbon, First-class BA History (Balliol College, Oxford). Breaking Point: The UK Referendum on the EU and its Aftermath (Haus Curiosities). p. 63.

        And then there is English nationalism. Defining yourself as English rather than British was one of the most accurate indicators of a Brexit vote.But what is English identity? It is not like other nationalisms. A Scottish Nationalist might resent Edinburgh a bit but nothing like an English nationalist will loath London and, to his or her mind, what it stands for. The common identifiers of someone describing themselves as

p. 64

English more than British will be a sense that they are not doing very well, struggling perhaps. They will usually look at the pace of change and migration and feel it is "time to put people like me first". It is often linked to a sense that life would be better if the clock could be turned back. Five years ago, Peter Kellner delved into the issues and found that "English" voters overwhelmingly wanted their country to withdraw from the world and that international agreements were more trouble than they were worth compared with "British" voters who were much more evenly divided between internationalists and isolationists.14
        The Labour MP Tristram Hunt has been at the forefront of Labour attempts to get in touch with English sentiment. He's recalled George Orwell's admonishment back in 1941 that [1.] England was "the only great country whose intellectuals are ashamed of their own nationality. [2.] In Left wing circles it is always felt there is something slightly disgraceful in being an Englishman." [mine] But those Labour souls that struggled to find an English nationalism they could identify with are struggling even more after June's referendum. Fintan O'Toole in The Irish Times wrote straight after the referendum: "England has not had the time, nor made the effort, to develop an inclusive, civic, progressive nationalism. It is left with a nationalism that is scarcely articulated in positive terms at all and that thus plugs into the darker energies of resentment and xenophobia. 15

  1. Please expound 1? What are the reasons of the shame?

  2. Please expound 2?

I couldn't glean any reasons for this English anti-intellectualism from /r/quotesporn, Quora, or The King's Review.

1 Answer 1


The quotation is from Orwell's long essay The Lion and the Unicorn. The first section of that essay is a lengthy description of what Orwell perceived to be the state of English society at the time of writing (that is, 1941). This included a lot of reflection on the position of intellectuals in English society and their prevailing attitudes to the ruling classes and to English culture in general. Unfortunately the argument is too long to quote in its entirety, but to summarise: Orwell believed the growth of inequality in England (and the British Empire) had forced the ruling classes to adopt a kind of deliberate ignorance. Their self-image would not allow them to admit that their wealth and power were unjustly held while still holding onto them:

The underlying fact was that the whole position of the moneyed class had long ceased to be justifiable. There they sat, at the centre of a vast empire and a world-wide financial network, drawing interest and profits and spending them – on what? ...But the British ruling class obviously could not admit to themselves that their usefulness was at an end. ... They had to feel themselves true patriots, even while they plundered their countrymen. Clearly there was only one escape for them – into stupidity. They could keep society in its existing shape only by being unable to grasp that any improvement was possible.

Orwell also argues in this essay that the use of the telegraph resulted in the administration of the British Empire being centralised in Whitehall, which made colonial administration less attractive to young intelligent people who might have become pro-Empire intellectuals in a previous era. (Orwell had worked as a colonial police officer in Burma, so he had some first-hand experience of the matter.) This, combined with the deliberate cultivating of stupidity mentioned above, resulted in English society simply not having any use for intellectuals:

Since about 1930 everyone describable as an ‘intellectual’ has lived in a state of chronic discontent with the existing order. Necessarily so, because society as it was constituted had no room for him. ...in an England ruled by people whose chief asset was their stupidity, to be ‘clever’ was to be suspect. ... 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 English institution, from horse racing to suet puddings.

...It is clear that the special position of the English intellectuals during the past ten years, as purely negative creatures, mere anti-Blimps, was a by-product of ruling-class stupidity. Society could not use them, and they had not got it in them to see that devotion to one's country implies ‘for better, for worse’. Both Blimps and highbrows took for granted, as though it were a law of nature, the divorce between patriotism and intelligence.

(NB: "Blimp" in this essay is used to refer to the patriotic pro-Empire middle class, especially those with military connections; it was a nickname derived from the cartoon character Colonel Blimp.)

So, to summarise: Orwell believed that the ruling classes of the British Empire had increasingly disdained intellectual skills and intelligence generally in recent times (recent as of 1941, that is). As a result of this, there was almost no scope for intellectually-inclined people to find good positions within the establishment. Because English society had no use for them, English intellectuals turned against that society. This manifested both in political action and in a general cultural disdain for Englishness.

It's quite a complex argument, and fairly specific to the period Orwell was writing in.

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