By Tom Anderson
The origins of political party colours were briefly mentioned in my previous article on the origins of ideological names. As I mentioned in that article, it is worth bearing in mind that the standardisation of political party colours is generally a fairly recent phenomenon. While it’s possible to find images from the18th century of British Tories with blue flags and Whigs with buff (close to orange) ones, and to point out that the modern Conservatives and Liberal Democrats use blue and orange as their respective colours, this is to oversimplify a historical narrative.
Historically, political parties were very local affairs, and often used colours specific to their local area. As recently as the end of the 20th century, it is possible to find Labour candidates in Manchester with yellow rosettes rather than red—and green ones in Newcastle.
John Barnes, in a 2004 article on this topic in the Conservative History Journal, recounts that when he was dispatched as the prospective parliamentary candidate for Walsall North in 1963 and put on a blue Conservative rosette, he was kissed by a lady who was glad to find a Liberal candidate standing at last. Traditionally in that area, the Conservatives had used red, the Liberals blue and Labour yellow. The central Conservative Party had standardised on blue in 1949, but the local branches stubbornly stuck to their local colours, and the same was true of other parties.
One theory for the historical use of red by some Conservatives was that it was the racing colours of the Earl of Derby, sometimes called the Father of the Conservative Party. Local Labour parties often turned to colours other than red for this reason that red was sometimes already taken. As recently as 2010, Rory Stewart (recently in the news for his abortive leadership bid) was elected as MP for Penrith in the Border wearing a rosette that diplomatically included yellow as well as blue to reflect the traditional local Conservative colours.
So political party colours can often be for very arbitrary reasons. Indeed the presence of colours at all in British politics is arguably thanks to the use of rosettes and banners, which are not universally used in other countries to say the least. Historically a common political symbol was the cockade, a flower-like ribbon usually worn on a hat, which featured the colours of a particular cause. Perhaps the best-known one is the blue, white and red cockade of the French Revolution, which (as I noted in a recent article) formed the basis of the logo of France’s air force, and latterly the RAF as well. The origins of these colours will be discussed below.
Cockades for other causes were also used in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries; the Federalist Party, the first organised political party of the United States, used a black-white-black cockade. If American history had gone differently, one of their parties to this day might use these colour combinations (or perhaps a compromise on grey).
It is difficult to point to the first use of a colour being associated with a specific political ideology, because it is always so difficult to draw the line. For example, the association of orange with the House of Orange and therefore (via William of Orange) Protestantism, as used today by groups as diverse as the Dutch football team and Loyalist or anti-Catholic groups of Protestants in Northern Ireland and elsewhere; can this be said to represent a unified ideologial stance as opposed to loyalty to a specific figure or lineage at different times for different reasons? Probably not.
One case we might turn to is the use of sea-green in the English Civil War, and the broader War of the Three Kingdoms. The war was far more complex than the simplistic picture sometimes presented of Cavaliers versus Roundheads, with diverse political and religious factions on both sides aligned for pragmatic reasons. On the Roundhead or Parliamentarian side, among many others, were the Levellers: a party calling for equality before the law (the ‘levelling’ of the class system), broad suffrage and religious tolerance. The Levellers were associated with the colour sea-green and wore green ribbons. The colour choice might have been random; in the seventeenth century, when uniforms were scarce, both street mobs and even professional soldiers might identify themselves to avoid friendly fire by attaching a ribbon (or a cockade, as above) to their clothing.
Perhaps green was simply the colour available at the time; it’s not clear whether it was chosen on purpose. Regardless, the Levellers were certainly an ideologically coherent faction, albeit one that was sidelined and suppressed by Oliver Cromwell’s “Independents”. Cromwell of course gained power through his leadership of the New Model Army, which is also thought to be the first case of English or British soldiers wearing red uniforms—according to one story, simply because it was the cheapest dye available. However, one account from 1806 instead argues that the red uniforms of the British Army are ultimately derived from the red underclothes worn by mediaeval knights beneath their armour.
Though the Levellers never gained power, they persisted after the fall of Cromwell and the restoration of Charles II, forming the opposition ‘Green Ribbon Club’. This did not survive the accession of James II, but the association of sea-green with liberty remained in Britain. The Victorian historian Thomas Carlyle described the French Revolutionary leader Maximilien Robespierre as ‘the Sea-green Incorruptible’. The British republican movement’s flag in the nineteenth century had stripes of red, white and the same green, identical to the modern Hungarian flag.
In 1856, the British chemist William Henry Perkin discovered a vivid purple dye called mauveine. Before this time, purple had been associated with upper-class privilege, going back to the Roman period where the only purple dye was ‘Tyrian purple’, painstakingly and expensively extracted from certain rock snails. Purple togas were only worn by Roman emperors and victorious generals, and the Roman-descended Byzantine Empire described the heir to the throne as ‘Porphyrogenitos’, meaning ‘born to the purple’ in Greek. Perkin’s discovery democratised purple, meaning the colour also became associated with the idea of spreading liberty and equality to the people.
Purple was added to sea-green in British radical usage, and in the late nineteenth century British radical movements began to use a green-white-violet tricolour instead of red-white-green. However, the most well-known movement to use the colours was the Suffragettes, who identified Green-White-Violet as ‘Give Women Votes’.
It is interesting to note that this usage was despite the fact that some Suffragettes were from aristocratic backgrounds and only wanted wealthy women to have the vote; the colours can be seen on the sash worn by Mrs Banks near the start of Disney’s Mary Poppins.
But why did the British republicans and suffragettes use tricolours at all? That, of course, is thanks to the huge impact of the French Revolution, whose tricolour inspired many others across the world. The exact origins of the tricolour are subject to historical controversy (like most things involving the monstrously complex French Revolutionary period), but the generally agreed sequence of events goes like this. Initially, a number of colours and symbols were used by the various Revolutionary factions.
Camille Desmoulins, perhaps thinking of the British usage of sea-green, wanted his supporters to wear green cockades made from leaves. However, green was also the colour of the reactionary Comte d’Artois and these were quickly abandoned. Another early symbol was derived from the fact that the Marquis de Lafayette, then commanding the National Guard, raised a plain red flag over the Champ de Mars in 1791 as a symbol of martial law, warning rioters to disperse. After anti-royalist protestors were slain, the Jacobin revolutionaries deliberately adopted the red flag as a symbol of the ‘martyrs’ blood’, and argued that they had declared ‘the martial law of the people against the revolt of the court’—perhaps the most historically impactful case of ‘No, you!’ ever. The red flag became an unofficial national symbol under the Reign of Terror, but never displaced the Tricolour (see below). In “Look to the West” I posit an alternative French Revolution in which a form of the red flag indeed becomes the main national symbol. In our timeline, meanwhile, the red flag would later (and in part due to this connection) be adopted by far-left socialist and communist groups, and formed the basis of the flags of the Soviet Union and modern China.
With Desmoulins’ green cockade rejected, however, the Paris militia turned to the traditional colours of Paris, red and blue (visible on the city’s coat of arms, left) as the basis of their cockade. Later, white was added to separate the colours; Lafayette claimed this was a traditional national colour of France, though others suggested it was to symbolise the royal family in a constitutional monarchy (which is not, of course, how the Revolution eventually panned out). Compared to the overly complex Bourbon flags of the preceding period, the blue-white-red cockade—and the tricolour flag derived from it—was a simple and striking symbol that could demand the loyalty of its people. Though 25 years’ of war against both republican and imperial French regimes ended in defeat and the temporary Bourbon restoration, the tricolour had made its mark. Tricolour flags now dominate much of Europe, drawing from local colours as appropriate, and also many other countries around the world, in part due to European colonialism.
There is much more that can be said of political, ideological and military colours, of course, and I will continue on this theme in a future article.
Tom Anderson is the author of SLP books including the Look To The West series (Diverge and Conquer, Uncharted Territory, Equal and Opposite Reactions), The Twilight's Last Gleaming, Not An English Word, The Curse of Maggie, The Unreformed Kingdom, and The Surly Bonds of Earth