Colonel Blimp – Alive And Well, And Living In Rochford

“Gad, sir, Lord Blither is right. Bayonets bring the best out of a man – __________ .” I was recently looking for the words which complete this quote (to answer a quiz question), and was reminded of the genius of the cartoonist David Low who created their speaker.

Low, a New Zealander, was so frustrated with the political leadership of the British establishment in the early 1930s that he created his cartoon character, Colonel Blimp, in 1934. In his autobiography, Low explained that Blimp represented everything he disliked in British politics: “Blimp was no enthusiast for democracy. He was impatient with the common people and their complaints. His remedy to social unrest was less education, so that people could not read about slumps. An extreme isolationist, disliking foreigners (which included Jews, Irish, Scots, Welsh, and people from the Colonies and Dominions); a man of violence, approving war. He had no use for the League of Nations nor for international efforts to prevent wars. In particular he objected to any economic reorganisation of world resources involving changes in the status quo.”

David Low died in 1963 – but his work still has a peculiar resonance today. It is said that he got the idea for his Colonel Blimp character after he overheard “two pink, sweating chaps of military bearing” in a Turkish bath, agreeing that if cavalry horses were cut in favour of new technology, troops should still be entitled to wear their spurs inside tanks.

Modern Blimps may not be quite so bloated and walrus-faced as their ancestor, but they are still with us. Remember the cavalier attitude of our leaders towards the UN, when more cautious voices at home and our French and German neighbours were arguing for a strong UN role? Well, listen to Blimp on the League of Nations in the 1930s: “Gad, sir, Lord Beaverbrook is right! We must give up the League of Nations until it promises to have nothing to do with foreigners!”

Regular readers of this column will know that the Liberal Democrats were one of the few voices raised against the invasion of Iraq (you can’t really call it a war, can you?). We were unimpressed by the Bush-Blair crusade, and we wanted more time for the UN inspectors to find the truth about Saddam’s alleged weapons of mass destruction. A strange illusion, conjured up, no doubt, by smoke and mirrors, finds our Prime Minister currently begging for more time for the US inspectors to find the truth about Saddam’s alleged weapons of mass destruction.

Colonel Blimp would have been very much in favour of invading: he was pro-war and very much in favour of strong leadership, like today’s Daily Mail. The Mail couldn’t wait to see our boys in action in Iraq, and gave their full backing to Bush and Blair.

The Daily Mail, of course, has a long history of admiration for strong leadership – falling for Hitler and Mussolini abroad, supporting Mosley’s Blackshirts at home, and backing Neville Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement. It is interesting to speculate that if the Daily Mail had had its way in the 1930s, they might now be campaigning for a referendum on the Reich Mark.

There are plenty of isolationist voices around today, echoing Blimp’s Little Englander attitudes. They are the voices of those who would really like to see our complete withdrawal from Europe – a wish disguised by ephemeral campaigns against whatever our continetal neighbours are currently interested in, and fed by a self-appointed cabal of tabloid newspaper editors.

Rochford Tories were recently so moved by the Mail’s call for a referendum on changes to the European Community’s constitution that they called a special meeting. Quite why they want an unelected tabloid newspaper editor to make political decisions, when we have a perfectly properly elected government whose job this is, I cannot say.

But I do remember how Kipling described the press to Lord Beaverbrook: “Power without responsibility – the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages.”. (Stanley Baldwin later used the same words: “The papers conducted by Lord Rothermere and Lord Beaverbrook are not newspapers in the ordinary acceptance of the term. They are engines of propaganda, for the constantly changing policies, desires, personal wishes, personal likes and dislikes of two men … it is power without responsibility.”)

One tabloid paper derided the anti-war demonstration in February because while a million marched, 55 million stayed at home. I wonder if they would accept the same argument now: that if a million people voted for a referendum, they were outnumbered 55 to 1?

I also have difficulty understanding why those who would love to have us withdraw from Europe would be delighted to see us allied with the USA – a nation which provides an exemplary model of a federal union.

Colonel Blimp would have had no problem with such a paradox. “Gad, sir, Mr. Churchill is right. We must rend the Party asunder or it will split from top to bottom.” Would Blimp have been at home in the modern Tory party? I rather think he would.

(PS If you have read this far, and really want to know, the quotation I started with finishes: “and it stays out.”)