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.”)
First published in December 2017. | Updated in September 2019.
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.
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.’
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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