In an age of Trump, Brexit, fake news and a new British prime minister renowned for his, let us call it, “playfulness” with the truth, it is chilling to realise that the Old Etonian (that’s George not Boris) remains as relevant today as he was in the Cold War era.
Nineteen Eighty-Four is 70 years old. Published in the summer of 1949, the most influential novel of the last century depicted a nightmarish future in which facts were manufactured, history was rewritten and, as Orwell put it in his opus, “the very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world”.
This week, whilst walking the West Highland Way, I have been reading Dorian Lynskey’s The Ministry of Truth, which is not afraid to draw parallels between Newspeak and today’s political discourse. In his introduction, Lynskey observes that when Donald Trump became president of the US sales of the post-war masterpiece increased by 9,500pc.
What would Orwell have made of Big Boris? He might not be watching us but he appears to have invented something called Boris-think.
From his bus-side claim of an extra £350m a week to be spent on the NHS to his damaging comments on the case of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, the blond charlatan seems to be on a one-man mission to convince us that two plus two really does equal five.
Let’s not get too carried away here. We are clearly not living in a totalitarian state which suppresses dissent and controls people’s thoughts. But when our recently-elected (by less than one per cent of registered voters) Supreme Leader hails the Leave vote as an assertion of parliamentary sovereignty whilst mooting the prospect of shutting down Westminster to force through a no-deal Brexit, one can only conclude that we are living in Orwellian times.
Only last week, Boris was caught out making the fishy claim that “Brussels bureaucrats” had forced kipper smokers to include ice packs with their products when shipping. As a European Commission food safety spokesperson explained, the case fell outside the scope of EU legislation and was, so to speak, a red herring.
Again, I’m not suggesting that our new PM’s next address to the House of Commons will include the slogans: “War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.” I am suggesting that (like Trump) when it comes to distorting the truth for political convenience, he has form.
After Trump’s inauguration in 2017, one of his advisers used an infamous phrase from the dystopian novel - “alternative facts” – to justify the lie that it was the “largest audience to ever witness (the ceremony) – period – both in person and around the globe”. It’s been downhill ever since, with the former Reality TV star regularly inciting his devoted followers in the manner of Orwell’s “Two Minutes Hate”.
In Nineteen Eighty-Four, the secular saint described how “a hideous ecstasy of fear and vindictiveness…seemed to flow through the whole group of people like an electric current.” He could so easily have been reporting on the recent Trump rally in North Carolina when Democrat congresswoman Ilhan Omar, an American citizen, was told in no uncertain times to “go back” to her birthplace in Somalia.
In its seven decades of after-life, Orwell’s seminal tome has been appropriated across the political spectrum. It has been lionised by lefties, feted by the far right, revered – and denounced – by revolutionaries and reactionaries.
It has been a huge influence on popular culture, from Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaids Tale to Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror, from Margaret Thatcher’s assault on liberal intellectuals to Jeremy Corbyn’s vilification of the political elite and from classic albums such as David Bowie’s Diamond Dogs to iconic film adaptations like the Hunger Games.
But, at a time when our political language is being debased on a daily basis, our political speech is being coarsened in every news bulletin and the line between reality and dissembling has become blurred, it needs to be celebrated, most of all – as Lynskey’s wonderful biography of the book points out – for its “defence of truth”.