Pickthorn’s Principles

In the later part of the Second World War in Britain, and despite the existence of the war-time coalition government, a group of Conservative politicians – many of them Members of Parliament, others with special knowledge, and some who wished to remain anonymous – began to circulate ideas for the forthcoming peace through the “Signpost Booklets on Post-War Problems”. George Orwell kept an eye on their publications, but readers of Orwell will know them best through one work, the third in the series, Kenneth Pickthorn’s Principles Or Prejudices, which Orwell discussed in his As I Please column in Tribune on November 17th 1944.

“A correspondent who lacks the collecting instinct has sent a copy of Principles or Prejudices, a sixpenny pamphlet by Kenneth Pickthorn, the Conservative M.P., with the advice (underlined in red ink): ‘Burn when read.’ ” Orwell did not burn the pamphlet as his correspondent suggested but added it to his archive (which is now in the British Library). Fortunately, we have been able to obtain another copy, from Japan which we can examine in light of Orwell’s column (see note below on Orwell’s own copy):-

pickthorn principlesp 01

Orwell goes on to say and then quote, “Look at this, for instance, for a misrepresentation of the theory of Marxism:

Not one of the persons who say that economic factors govern the world believes it about himself. …  American newspapers [Orwell quotes this in full]

… Marx not only did not say this, he said almost the opposite of it.”

Orwell is quoting is from a final section of the booklet, “Economics and Politics”.

pickthorn principlesp 02

Orwell is quoting from the bottom right of page 21

As can be seen this copy of the pamphlet has been annotated by its reader. Orwell, himself, makes other observations, although his column is full of items, and the space for description of this pamphlet is limited. Orwell points out that a majority of the booklet is an attack on internationalism. If he had had more space he might have pointed out that another sentence on page 21, “If the Sabbath was made for man, still more were the working days”, would seem to be a justification for slavery.

Kenneth Pickthorn had been a lecturer in history, and then was elected as MP for Cambridge University (his portrait hangs in Corpus Christi College), when there were university seats. He appears not to have studied philosophy, or his annotated sentence on page 20, “An act has no moral value to the performer of it if he does it under compulsion”, might have been phrased differently. Some acts under compulsion are pragmatically good: the would-be murderer whose axe has been forcible removed is saved from an immoral act (Orwell may have remembered school Greek lessons in which Socrates said this). And Pickthorn’s comment on Marx’s ability to make money by diverting his talent from politics to economics makes the same pragmatic point, although again Pickthorn fails to realise it. His concern for nationalism and anti-internationalism means that his name appears later in Orwell’s essay “Notes on Nationalism”, where he is called “Professor Pickthorn”.

Turning back a few pages we find ourselves in Orwell territory again, in discussions of “My Country, Right or Wrong”. It is difficult to read the pages which repeat this phrase, that come in the booklet’s longest section, “Defence is the Primary Policy”, without hearing echoes of Orwell’s own “England Your England”, in his 1941 short work, The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius.

pickthorn principlesp 03The last two pages of the six page section “Defence is the Primary Policy”

Noticing the difference in attitude between the two authors, though, may bring W B Yeats’ phrase to mind, “changed, changed utterly”, and help explain the strength of Orwell’s criticism: “a disgusting piece of work … this whole series of pamphlets (the Signpost Booklets, by such authors as G. M. Young, Douglas Woodruff and Captain L. D. Gammans) is a bad symptom.”

It is clear, though, that Orwell continued to study the series as the individual volumes appeared, presumably in a spirit of quarantine.


Principles or Prejudices was first published in November 1943, unless “1943” is an error for “1944”. It might have taken Orwell and his correspondent nearly a year to become aware of it.

“Burn when read” must have been in the accompanying letter, it is not inscribed on Orwell’s copy of the pamphlet. Thanks to Orwell Society member Darcy Moore for his report on the Orwell Pamphlet Archive in the British Library.


L J Hurst


Uploaded January 26 2019


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