David Low is still known as one of the great masters of the political cartoon. His glory years were probably the 1930s and 1940s. In 1934, he invented Colonel Blimp for his page in the London Evening Standard: a elderly, absurd retired officer always spouting the latest reactionary nonsense, in the process managing to muddle it even further in the direction of absurdity. The scene was always the Turkish Bath, the nearly naked Colonel pontificating to a permanently baffled Low, and his pronouncements always had the same formula: “Gad, sir. xxxxx is right…”
The Colonel is probably best known today through the Powell and Pressburger film The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, but that is really the tale of Major-General Clive Wynne-Candy, quite a different character. We will not speak of him again.
I’m not going to detail the history of David Low’s Colonel Blimp in this place, but there’s a good article on him here. It is notable that the owner of the London Evening Standard, Lord Beaverbrook, was often ridiculed by Low in the pages of that same paper.
I only mention the Colonel now because I recently noticed how some of his pronouncements, uttered 80 or 85 years ago, could almost have been uttered yesterday by certain British public figures well known to all.
This is no time for subtlety. I am referring to Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson and others of their ilk.
The past ten years or so have had startling parallels with Britain in the 1930s. From 1931 onwards the United Kingdom had a “National Government” of all parties, just as we had a Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition from 2010 to 2015. The rise of political extremism combined with governmental stagnation sounds most familiar.
The figure of the harrumphing retired military man (usually a Major) was already a stereotype of the period, perhaps most familiar to us today through the mysteries of Agatha Christie. Many in the 1930s insisted he was out of date. But as Low saw, Blimp was alive and well.
I am taking these cartoons from two large albums: Low’s Political Parade (1936) and Low Again: A Pageant of Politics (1938). Unfortunately, the Blimp cartoons are undated in these albums, so I am unable to date them here. However, evidently they are all from the 1934-1938 period.
The Colonel has much to say on many issues home and abroad. I’m only going to mention one or two, of especial relevance to us.
We have already seen his opinion of international organisations like the League of Nations; he was a steadfast supporter of “splendid isolation” for England. We will certainly have an excellent opportunity of seeing how that works after Brexit.
As we look back on Britain’s glorious past as the benevolent head of a cooperative Empire, it is also good to know that the Colonel was fully behind its aims, right alongside Churchill.
Like so many of our wisest heads today, he firmly believed in the moral benefits of a military training.
Needless to say, he yielded to no one in his support for freedom of expression.
This was only a part of his overriding belief in the importance of good old British Liberty.
Above all, like our own Prime Minister today, he knew the full value of an Englishman’s word of honour.
In October 1937, the Secretary of War, Leslie Hore-Belisha, called Colonel Blimp a “figment”. Low did not take kindly to this, and responded with a full page cartoon showing Hore-Belisha as chief mourner at the head of a funeral cortege with three Blimp guards hauling the Colonel himself, “not dead but sleeping.”
Hore-Belisha tried the trick again two years later, declaring in the House of Commons in May 1939 that Colonel Blimp was dead and buried. I don’t know how Low responded to that sally, though I am sure he must have done. Perhaps all this rhetoric fed into the film of the Colonel’s “life and death”. I don’t know that, either.
But I can tell you one thing. If Colonel Blimp was not dead but sleeping in 1937, he has now awakened, like a useless version of King Arthur, and he is with us now.