Final Word

Helen Zille and the oldest colour of politics, blue

True blue.jpg

The political high drama of last week around the ‘blue party,” DA with their former leader Helen Zille, made me wonder if she could be described as an ‘true blue?’

It turns out that the answer can be ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ depending your vantage point – ‘yes’ as a description of being “being unwavering in one’s opinions,” as one definition of the proverb goes, or ‘no’ when another definition of “marked by unswerving loyalty (as to party),” is applied.

The proverb ‘true blue’ in history predates the days before political parties made their appearance as a socio-political phenomenon, but blue is the colour with the longest political history – beating red by about a century.

'True blue' is said to have derive from the reputation of late middle ages weavers’ and dyers at Coventry, England to produce blue cloth that that did not fade with washing – it remained 'fast' or 'true.'

As a proverb, ‘true blue’ was first recorded in 1630 as “True blue will never stain,” probably from the blue aprons traditionally worn by butchers in order not to show bloodstains.

Coventry’s status in this regard was confirmed, and the proverb gained ‘official’ recognition, in 1670 when John Ray included it in the first edition of A Compleat Collection of English Proverbs. He wrote: "Coventry had formerly the reputation for dying of blues; insomuch that true blue became a Proverb to signify one that was always the same and like himself."

So, on this evidence, Ms Zille is right on the button as in the first definition of the proverb – “being unwavering in one’s opinions.”

However, in the political sense of the word, it might be a different story.

The political, more figurative connotation also made its appearance in the late 17th century via a group of Scottish Presbyterians, called the Covenanters, who swore to uphold the National Covenant and oppose the rule of James IV of Scotland.

The Covenanters also established the Whig party, wore blue as their badge and those who unequivocally supported the cause were called 'true blue'.

Samuel Butler in 1663 produced a satirical poem, Hudibras, about this group that effectively recorded the figurative use of “true blue.’  He wrote:

For his Religion it was Fit
To match his learning and wit;
'Twas Presbyterian true blue

The Covenanters are no longer politically active, although the name survives as the nickname of the Reformed Presbyterian Church.

More modern politics

The Covenants and their Whig party’s equivalents in England were the ‘Tories’ – a term originally used for dispossessed Irish people who became outlaws. A century later it became a nickname for English conservatives and the Conservative Party – originally called the Tory Party – also adopted blue as their official colour.

Staunch supporters of the Tories, of Conservative Party then also became called ‘true blue’ members of the party.

The term then also migrated in the late 1700s and early 1880s from Britain to Australia with convicts send to the then penal colony. Over time it became associated with the working class and adopted by the Labour Party as official colour.

The Advertiser of Adelaide, on 29 September 1890 reported on a strike of sheep shearers in New South Wales, quoting a telegram that had been sent to the Shearers’ Union: “The men are true blue, and will rather be imprisoned than yield.”

Final word

However, as Ms Zille probably discovered last week, the meaning of ‘true blue’ is not always consistent when it comes to politics. While, also in Canada, it suggests conservative opinions, to its south, in the USA, it is used to describe loyal supporters of any party.

by Piet Coetzer

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