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From anti-Americanism to European soft power: the geopolitics of Tintin

What's fascinating, when reading Hergé's series today, is how clearly its values evolve in line with a changing world. 

Who would have thought that Tintin would so easily become a social media star? After all, the protagonist of Hergé's comics is a pre-internet reporter, whose adventures around the world are set in a time that is long gone. But following the Brussels attacks, images of the young Belgian were suddenly all over the internet – picturing him lying on the ground, or in tears while reading the news (in a good old newspaper, of course).

Tintin remains dear to many Europeans, inside and outside Belgium. And if you think about it, there is no reason why he shouldn't be, since he has embodied the continent's values for half a century.

At first glance, Tintin represents a fairly straightforward message: the importance of selflessness and truth-seeking. But the 24 children's books, published mainly between the 30s and the 70s, are also filled with references to what Europeans thought about an ever-changing world. Some of these views still make us proud. Others, maybe, not so much.

According to Daniel Justens, who has authored two essays on the representation of language and geography in the series, Hergé's first editor, priest Norbert Wallez, “was deeply involved in a sort of Christian hyper-conservatism very close to the far right.” Nowadays, the stories written under his influence can be disturbing for how blatantly they pander to anti-communist and colonial stereotypes.

Certain scenes of the first episode, Tintin in the Land of the Soviets (1930), are pure propaganda. At one point, a Bolshevik officer burns bundles of straw in an empty factory, so that the foreign observers outside (“English communists”) can be shown the smoke coming out of the chimneys and be fooled about the country's industrial productivity.

When it comes to colonialism, Hergé's early work is not exactly nuanced. In Tintin in the Congo (1931), the young European journalist teases the locals for their laziness, teaches maths to a class of black children and fights against a sorcerer who wants to keep his people in a state of ignorance to dominate them more easily.

“It is a controversial book,” says Oliver Dunnett, a researcher currently at Queen's University Belfast who has studied geopolitics and identity issues in Tintin. “In the UK, a commission for racial equality called for it to be banned from sale.”

But what's fascinating, when reading the entire series today, is how clearly its values evolve in line with world politics.

In the 70s, Hergé sent Tintin (not for the first time) to Latin America. There, again, he ends up among an indigenous population with an entirely different culture, the Arumbayas. But this time around, there are few traces of his old, patronising behaviour. At one point, a white man who's decided to live with the tribe even scolds Tintin for his lack of tact: “When travelling, you must adapt to local habits. Otherwise just stay at home!”

This evolution over time is not limited to the relations between Europe and developing countries. Hergé was a sponge. Not known for being a very political person, he often absorbed the dominant narrative on an issue and made it part of his comics, not necessarily in ways that we would approve of today.

He re-wrote stories, too. A first version of The Shooting Star, which appeared during World War II while Belgium was under Nazi occupation, featured villainous Jewish characters and an American expedition competing with Tintin's side. Hergé then retouched it for the Cold War era, and in the new version anti-Semite references were largely gone and the US had conveniently been replaced by a fictional country, the São Rico (Saint Rich).

The new name, however, and the fact that the American identity of the reporter's opponents is still hard to overlook, also suggest that something does remain (almost) unchanged throughout the series. Judging from his work, Hergé was not a fan of US-style big business.

During his endeavours Tintin meets all sorts of greedy tycoons, most of them from the United States. Some offer him money, in which he is totally uninterested. Others try to grow their fortunes with appalling indifference to morals. In The Broken Ear (1937), set in South America, the magnate Mr Trickler causes a war to lay his hands on an allegedly oil-rich area. A reference, as it often happens in the series, to real events: the Gran Chaco War fought in the '30s between Bolivia and Paraguay.

In contrast to such ruthless economic imperialism, Tintin stands as a beacon of European humanism, a model of sensibleness committed to stopping the vicious, violent cycle of local coups. When in a more recent story he helps reinstate ousted General Alcazar, the latter has to promise he will not allow any bloodshed by his men.

Hergé's eurocentrism survived under the US political and cultural hegemony of the second half of the century. When he takes his creature outside the earthly atmosphere, in a couple of volumes published in the '50s, the fictional scientific mission is entirely European: in this space race, there is little room for the almighty ally and protector. Once again, Tintin and his gang succeed. After all, this tireless man, who has reflected the continent's virtues and flaws for so many years, did deserve to be the first to walk on the Moon.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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