“They thought we’d just roll over and have our tummies tickled and they’ve suddenly discovered that the British bulldog doesn’t behave like that.”[1] So the prominent UK Conservative MP Jacob Rees-Mogg summarized the deadlock between the British Government and the European Union in September 2017 in a comment that attracted the enthusiastic attention of the UK tabloid press and numerous Brexit bloggers and tweeters. With these words, Rees-Mogg participated in a long-standing tradition of invoking the bulldog as a symbol of the nation’s pluck and determination.

The bull-dog was first bred in Britain and earned both its name and reputation for tenacity due to its use in the grisly blood sport of bullbaiting. In these horrifying games, one dog would be set at a time on a bull that was either tied to a post or placed in a hole in the ground and whichever dog pinned the bull to the ground would be the winner. Selective breeding caused them to develop their oversized heads, sharp teeth and stout frames, as well as their indomitable character. At first, the bulldog was considered every bit as frightening as the sport for which it was raised. In 1579, it was described by the English physician and scholar John Caius as “vaste, huge, stubborne, ougly and eager, of a heft and burthenous body …terrible and frightful to beholde” [sic.]. [2] By the eighteenth century, however, the bulldog’s spirited intransigence was being celebrated. The “ancient genuine race of true bred English bulldogs” were praised for “excelling in fight, victorious over their enemies, undaunted in death”. [3] As this comment suggests, commentators began to emphasise the bulldog’s fearlessness and English pedigree. For example, in his entry for “bulldog” in his celebrated 1755 A Dictionary of the English Language, the English writer and lexicographer Samuel Johnson observed that the breed was “particular to Britain” and “remarkable for its courage”.[4]

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the connection between the bulldog’s stoutheartedness and a perceived national tendency towards undaunted perseverance was made explicit when the MP Mr. Windham objected to a proposed ban on bullbaiting on the grounds that “the sport kept alive the spirit of the English character”.[5] While this brutal pastime was banned finally in 1835, the bulldog retained its reputation for hardnosed determination. In the 1860s, the English biologist and educator Thomas Henry Huxley was nicknamed “Darwin’s bulldog” for his staunch public defense of evolutionary theory.[6] And political cartoonists came increasingly to portray the bulldog as the companion of John Bull: the jolly, fat, middle-aged man deployed as a personification of the United Kingdom. Like his master, the bulldog’s drooping lips and pot-bellied frame was believed to conceal a formidable resolve.

Increasingly, the bulldog was deployed as an emblem of British nationalism. In the chorus of his jingoistic 1897 music-hall anthem “Sons of the Sea” the composer Arthur Reece celebrated the sailors and shipbuilders of the British Empire as “boys of the bulldog breed/ Who made old England’s name”. And during World War I British propaganda presented the bulldog as a symbol of British bravery in the face of German might. One postcard from the era depicts a tank the shape of a bulldog about to mow down German soldiers in a trench. Another displays a British bulldog adamantly refusing sausages from a German soldier. In the 1920s, the British solider and writer H. C. McNeile created a series of highly popular novels featuring Hugh “Bulldog” Drummond, a bored World War I veteran who leaves his civilian lifestyle for a life of gentlemanly adventure, often battling German enemies. At the same time as constituting a laudable image of the hardworking outsider, the bulldog could provide a screen for belligerence and xenophobia.

The use of the bulldog as a symbol of British indomitability arguably reached its apex during World War II, when the animal’s cultural representation was fused with the persona of the British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. In physical terms, the dog and the wartime leader shared a rounded face, jowly cheeks and a tubby anatomy. More importantly, the bulldog’s persistence appeared to mirror the determination of a politician who had resisted widespread calls to appease Adolf Hitler in the 1930s and led the British Empire and Commonwealth between 1940 and 1941 when it stood alone against Germany. A British caricature of the period portrays Churchill as a giant bulldog perched on the British mainland looking defiantly towards Continental Europe wearing an air-raid helmet with the slogan “Go to It” emblazoned upon it. Similarly, a 1942 American propaganda poster shows Churchill as a bulldog with the slogan “Holding the Line” to emphasize Britain’s noble tenacity. The connection between Churchill and the bulldog continued to be so strong in the twenty-first century that the British company “Churchill Insurance” chose the animal as its mascot in a series of television adverts.

Nonetheless, the synthesis of the bulldog symbol with the Wartime Prime-Minister highlights some of the dubious resonances of this image. Churchill remains largely admired in Britain, as indicated by his number one ranking in a 2002 poll of “Great Britons”, and is still lauded internationally for his resistance to Nazi and Soviet power. However, he is also controversial for his opposition to Indian Independence, his involvement in the bombing of Dresden and his use of direct military intervention in Kenya and other states. For some Churchill is an icon of heroic defiance, but for others he embodies the worst of British imperial militarism and racism. At the same time as signifying the courageous outsider the bulldog can also be a mask for aggression and bigotry. Notably, in the 1970s, Bulldog was the name of a youth magazine issued by the British fascist organization the National Front.

By deploying the symbol of the British bulldog, then, Jacob Rees-Mogg invokes an image of British identity with a centuries-long history. He presents a brief impasse in a mind-bogglingly complex set of ongoing negotiations between the UK and twenty-seven member states as a David-versus-Golitath scenario, in which Brexit Britain is a vulnerable pup standing up for itself against stronger and more devious enemies. Rees-Mogg thereby revives memories of the Second World War, invoking the familiar image of his nation as an island people beset by foreign foes; an image that recurs throughout British history and culture, from William Shakespeare’s Henry V (1599) to the Shire in J. R. R. Tolkein’s The Lord of the Rings (1954). Such a representation ignores the many centuries of collaboration, immigration and emigration between Britain and the Continent, never-mind the Britain’s Imperial history and its previous involvement in the slave-trade. The diminutive yet defiant bulldog provides Rees-Mogg with a convenient disguise for the philistine bigotry and bellicose antagonism underlying his politics.

[1] Chris Campbell, Bull-dog spirit! Rees Mogg blasts EU Chiefs saying UK won’t “roll over” in Brexit talks, Daily Express, Friday September 2017.
[2] Quoted: Steve Baker, Picturing the Beast: Animals, Identity and Representation (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2001) p. 52.
[3] Quoted: Keith Thomas, Man and the Natural World: Changing Attitudes in England, 1500-1800 (London: Penguin, 1983) p. 67.
[4] Quoted: Baker, p. 52.
[5] Quoted: F. Barret-Fowler, Bulldogs and All About Them (Alcester: Country Books, 2005) p. 15.
[6] See, for instance, Christopher E. Cosans, Owen’s Ape and Darwin’s Bulldog: Beyond Darwinism and Creationism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001) p. 123.