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  • Writer's pictureRobert Spicer

George Orwell on English Law

George Orwell

Orwell had little interest in the law, but he commented that it was not that anyone imagined the law to be just. Everyone knew that there was one law for the rich and another for the poor. But no one accepted the implications of this, everyone took it for granted that the law, such as it is, would be respected, and felt a sense of outrage when it is not. Remarks like “They can’t run me in; I haven’t done anything wrong” or “They can’t do that; it’s against the law” are part of the atmosphere of England. Everyone believes in his heart that the law can be, ought to be, and on the whole will be, impartially administered.

In his essay The Lion and the Unicorn (1941) on the nature of Englishness, Orwell states the following:

… the gentleness of English civilisation is mixed up with barbarities and anachronisms. Our criminal law is as out-of-date as the muskets in the Tower. Over against the Nazi Storm Trooper you have got to set that typically English figure, the hanging judge, some gouty old bully with his mind rooted in the nineteenth century, handing out savage sentences. In England people are still hanged by the neck and flogged with the cat o’nine tails. Both of these punishments are obscene as well as cruel, but there has never been any genuinely popular outcry against them. People accept them (and Dartmoor, and Borstal) almost as they accept the weather. They are part of ‘the law’ which is assumed to be unalterable.

Orwell also refers to the English respect for constitutionalism and legality, the belief in ‘the law’ as something above the State and above the individual, something which is cruel and stupid but at any rate incorruptible. He also refers to

…the hanging judge, that evil old man in scarlet robe and horse-hair wig, whom nothing short of dynamite will ever teach what century he is living in, but who will at any rate interpret the law according to the books and will in no circumstances take a money bribe, is one of the symbolic figures of England. He is a symbol of the strange mixture of reality and illusion, democracy and privilege, humbug and decency, the subtle network of compromises, by which the nation keeps itself in familiar shape.

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