How 1970s kids books formed the intellectual basis for Brexit. In essence “Ladybird books” were a kind of propaganda but we never noticed — and a lot of people still haven’t. (Warning: “May contain Dan Hannans.”)

Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin. Once upon a time in a  great farmhouse in darkest Peru, there lived a little bear and his two  elderly parents and with no other bears to play with and the forest  being too dangerous to venture into alone, he would lose himself in  books. Now in his nursery there were shelves brimming with stories of  gallant Kings and Queens and magnificent looking steam trains that flew  across lush green countryside and the little bear, sensing that he  somehow belonged to that far away land dreamed that he might one day  visit this magical country called “England.” England – that had invented  democracy and whose gleaming parliament had a clock tower that rose  taller than the tallest trees of the jungle. England – where the buses  were always red and ran on time and the incorruptible policeman rode  about in smart uniforms on gleaming bicycles. England – whose people  were “a byword for correctness, integrity and punctuality (qv).”

And then one day, trouble broke out in his homeland and his worried father came and told him that he needed  to be sent away but all would be well because England would look after  him. And so he waved his parents farewell and flew across the great  ocean – and arrived to discover that the country he had dreamed about  for so long was nothing like the picture books at all – and indeed was  actually a bit shit.

Now, OK Dan Hannan MEP isn’t and never has been a bear and I don’t  have access to his childhood library – but the rest of it is true.  Brexit’s key intellectual figure, like many in the movement is the  immigrant child of émigré parents; Paddington – without the marmalade  sandwiches or the general appeal.

Despite never being a household name Dan Hannan has managed, in admittedly narrow competition, to acquire a reputation as the ‘the brains’ behind Leave. His vision, plugged as academic validation of the cause  is essentially that Britain has always been an outward looking country  and that we have never been ‘comfortable’ as a part of Europe. We are  bigger than that. By ‘reaching out’ to old friends in the Commonwealth  with whom we have common ties and heritage we will we be able to fulfil  our latent potential.

Dan Hannan’s YouTube broadcasts – peculiarly evocative of a Dad’s Army era UK.

I don’t buy it myself and while that probably won’t surprise you, I  would contend that a lot of those who parrot it don’t really believe it  either. It’s a convenient crutch for bigots to lean on. Hannan on the  other hand clearly does believe in this and there’s a reason (I think)  for that which is wedded to his biography.

Rees-Mogg, Tory-UKIP defector Douglas Carswell and even Farage – when  he’s appealing to respectable Tories – all toe a similar line on the  ‘big world out there let’s trade with it’ thing. Indeed I’ve heard  friends in my own circle say it and Hannan’s book “How we invented Freedom”  was cited by a very clever acquaintance of mine as just cause for  voting Leave. This friend is married to an immigrant and very brainy  indeed – no tub thumping racist he – and someone whose views I respect  and so (despite having read some truly ghastly Hannan drivel) I  endeavoured to read it.

I didn’t get very far.

If you haven’t tackled this Magnus Opus yet then spoiler alert –  Hannan’s tome is “Ronseal academia” rooted in a “ladybird” view of world  history.

Ladybird Libertarians are all about us. Their intellectual rigour,  grounded in the books of their childhood has been carried into adulthood  and is now being used to validate their flakey political outlooks. The  more I study politicians like Hannan or old sparring partner Jacob Rees-Mogg or Douglas Carswell, the more I sense that their much vaunted intelligence and learning is little more than an academic veneer.

It’s hard to imagine if you weren’t there, but those of us who grew  up in British homes in the pre-internet age didn’t simply watch the same  television – we read the same books. Ask anyone British over 40 if they  ever read a “ladybird” and they will undoubtedly say ‘yes.’ Actually  it’s a little unfair (and pains me) to single out these beautiful tomes  because the vision of Britain trotted out by them is also there in Blue  Peter annuals, Look and Learn magazines, Eagle publications, Warlord comics and any number of imitators from the time.

Ladybird books though are the best known of the bunch – hence their  recent ironic revival and the originals are a particularly fascinating  window on British attitudes in the 1960s and 1970s. The history series,  which I’ve spent time looking at this week, remains extraordinarily  readable and vivid but it isn’t really ‘history.’ A lot of legends are  presented as facts; Alfred ‘did’ burn those cakes for instance and many  important details are omitted altogether. In the life of Charles II  ‘women’ are curiously absent. Nell Gwyn gets a brief mention on page 42  but only as ‘a famous actress at that time.’

Nell Gwyn, lover of Charles II and mother of his two children gets her only mention.

There is an almost pathological dedication to a ‘Kings and Queens at  the centre’ version of history. Even bad Kings are somehow good. This is  history where Francis Drake is a charming handsome adventurer first and  foremost, a fun-loving privateer (privateer if you’re British – pirate  if you’re foreign) second and a slave trading war-mongering bastard –  well – not at all.

Ladybird books and their imitators weren’t just about history of  course. They covered a wide and colourful assortment of topics. In the  ‘People at Work’ series “The Fisherman” is engaged in a noble endeavour –  bravely battling the elements and risking life and death to bring in  the catch against the cruel sea. It is undeniably admirable that  ordinary working jobs like that or ‘nurse’ ‘fireman’ and ‘farmer’ were  up there on the shelves on equal terms with the life of Lord Nelson in  the 1960s.

However, with their romantic art-work and unwavering hero narratives –  what children were being fed here was an exceptionally idealised  conception of Britain or if you prefer: ‘propaganda.’

OK – commercially produced propaganda – but still not so  very different to the stuff being pumped out in Soviet Union at the  time. These books present an overwhelmingly positive, patriarchal,  sanitised, utopian vision of Anglo-centric British history and society –  very much continuing the tradition of ‘colonial Empire literature’ that  my parents grew up with. The truth was far less prosaic and palatable.  The noble policemen in the 1960 Eagle book of Police and Detection are  untouchable, unimpeachable moral gods. And yet at the very same time  that the book was being sold, rotten and corrupt members of Sussex constabulary were serving time for a massive organised racket while just a decade later confessions were being beaten out of the innocent Birmingham 6.

Eagle – 1960.

White colonial men doing great things while ‘natives’ look on.

Hannan arrived in the UK (aged 8) in 1979 on his way to boarding  school. This was end-period punk Britain. A country mired in strikes and  misery as Jim Callaghan’s Labour government struggled to bury the dead  while the nation slowly buried itself under piles of uncollected  rubbish. Britain was a battered shadow of its former self. It must have  been a bitter disappointment for an eager young Empire boy brought up on  tales of his fabulous homeland to discover this rotting cadaver and not  the shiny picture book Britain he had read of.

As Roger Scruton says here of Hannan: “The expat mentality is (of) belonging to the old country  and the inability to accept that it is changed beyond repair.”

Ladybird Libertarians like Mogg, Hannan, Carswell and Farage seem  driven by a desire to get back the pastel Britain presented in the  books; the one where to be British was to be respected and we ran an  Empire on which the sun never set. All three were ‘young fogeys’ whose  political vision seems to have been formed at school and remained  rigidly and defiantly unchanged ever since. None of them has been on a  ‘journey’ in any meaningful way, shape or form since they left the  nursery behind.

Chasing a sanitised picture book past that never actually existed  beyond the idealised propaganda of ladybird books is like hunting for a  Snark. Hannan and chums have made careers out of it but having won  the pyrrhic Brexit victory they have yet to realise that the “snark was a  Boojum you see.” I don’t think they ever will.

Britain has not had a violent revolution or lost a war in modern  times – we have never really had to examine ourselves or critically –  our propaganda – in the way that Germany or the former Eastern Bloc  countries have. I’ve said this before and I will keep saying it because  in a peculiar way, Brexit is performing that function and obliging many  of us to look again at Britain and examine ourselves, our narrative and  even the books we grew up with more closely. That is a Brexit positive.  Perhaps at the heart of our current debate lies a conflict between those  who still buy the “Ladybird libertarian” take on history and those of  us who are increasingly interested in deconstructing the past and  figuring out what is best for all of our futures.🔷

Doves of Peace – Soviet painting of 1956.

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(This piece was originally published on The Pin Prick. | The author writes in a personal capacity.)

(Cover: Flickr / Gage Skidmore - Daniel Hannan speaking at the 2014 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland.)



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London based writer, retired trouble-maker and semi-professional irritant.

London, UK. Articles in PMP Magazine Website