Last month we ran an article about digital art and non-fungible tokens (or NFTs) and since then we’ve had readers asking: what about The Spectator’s Brexit butterfly? In almost two centuries of our publication's history, this is perhaps the best-known of all our covers: 'Out, and into the world' with our endorsement of Brexit. The phrase was reprised from our 1975 cover when we were one of only two publications to back Brexit in that referendum (the other was the Morning Star) and the artwork is from Morten Morland, perhaps the greatest political artist since Gillray. The cover has been made into postcards, framed pictures, social media avatars and more. So why not an NFT?
This was our last edition before the referendum and The Spectator had not declared either way. The previous week, our leading article said that we were going to declare a position – we’re pretty proud that, even then, no one could guess which way it would be. Our writers, like our readers, were split.
We reached the decision collectively: our columnists largely supported Brexit (Charles Moore, Lionel Shriver, Rod Liddle, Mary Wakefield, Douglas Murray; Matthew Parris was a fluent and forceful remainer) and it was consistent with our 1975 position.
Mary Wakefield, who was on maternity leave, came back to work on the process and suggesting using the box with the butterfly.
The cover was not just a bestseller, it’s the artwork most likely to be found on the walls of Spectator readers and embodies a sentiment – of open, global Britain – that has stayed in the political consciousness. When Theresa May delivered her Lancaster House speech about Brexit Britain standing ready to be Europe’s best ally, I spoke to Nick Timothy, then her chief of staff, who was trying to explain it to me. 'If that speech had an image,' he said, 'it would have been a Spectator Brexit butterfly.'
The butterfly was a favourite of readers, prime ministers and even divinities like Liz Hurley ('Beautiful graphic,' she said. 'Beautiful sentiment.') For opponents of Brexit, it was anything but: Morten’s image was used by Remainers (with the butterfly caged, etc) because it had become the most easily-recognised symbol of Brexit.