Articles

The Observer hates it, a brief history of the May Day Bank Holiday

In Uncategorized on May 1, 2017 by kmflett

May Day as a holiday

There is frequent dispute over the question of public holidays in the UK.

The current structure goes back to the Bank Holidays Act of 1871 which recognised the principle of a very small amount of paid time off for the new industrial workforce, and of course bank employees.

The framework has been tweaked since then to add New Year’s Day and differs in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Another recent addition is the May Day Bank Holiday. It was introduced in 1978 by the Callaghan Labour Government.

The Tories didn’t much like it then and many still don’t. No doubt we will hear the usual calls for its abolition and replacement by Trafalgar Day later in the year, or as likely a Thatcher Day.

The TUC’s view remains that Britain has the fewest public holidays in Europe- but by no means the highest workplace productivity- so a few more holidays in the interests of work-life balance would be a good idea whatever they are called.

Indeed Labour has proposed four more bank holidays on Saints Days if they win the General Election.

May Day has been a traditional day of celebration, both of spring and of Labour and it is marked in one or other and sometimes both contexts around the world.

The introduction of the official holiday in 1978 did not come without some issues.

Firstly a labour movement tradition- one I still try to hold to personally- has been not to work on May Day, even if this meant taking unofficial strike action.

The traditional London May Day March is still held on the day itself, and prior to 1978 strike action in some years was quite widespread.

So the appearance of the official holiday can be seen as a way of trying to stop such- to those in authority- unfortunate occurrences.

At the same time the complaint of many in the labour movement was that the bank holiday was only on May Day itself if it coincided with a Monday as is the case in 2017. Otherwise it was on the next available Monday

It is interesting to look back on views of that May Day in the 1970s- when incidentally a BBC report complained that too many shops and public venues were shut to make it enjoyable. This was a feature of all British public holidays until very recently.

We can do this via a House of Lords debate on the holiday that took place on May 9th 1978.

The debate was led off by Viscount Davdison who asked the question whether the Government thought having a May Day bank holiday was ‘wise’ and whether they planned to continue with it.

The Tory Peer claimed that the idea of having a public holiday on May Day was a matter of ‘political ideology’.

Lord Wallace for Labour pointed out that the Christian church had for centuries celebrated May 1st as the day of St Joseph the Worker so the decision to have a UK public holiday was clearly a ‘very respectable’ one.

He went on to point out that the only bad thing about the 1978 May Day holiday had been that it rained but even the then Lib-Lab Pact could not control the elements. In response Lord Alport demanded that if the Government planned to persist with a May Day holiday they must act to ensure that the weather was better.

One might have thought the Thatcher Government from 1979 would have abolished the May Day holiday. Checking the Thatcher Archive however one finds that on Monday May 4th 1981 Mrs T enjoyed lunch with Denis, Mark and Carol, happy as others to have a day off.

In 2017 however a Guardian columnist has argued that we don’t need Bank Holidays perhaps vaguely recalling the paper’s ninenteenth century roots in Manchester liberalism:

https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2017/apr/30/bank-holidays-misery-no-more-seasides-nausea-family-eva-wiseman?CMP=share_btn_tw

 

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2 Responses to “The Observer hates it, a brief history of the May Day Bank Holiday”

  1. The Observer hasn’t always hated it. This piece appeared in the paper on 30 April 1995:
    GILLIAN SHEPHARD AND PHALLIC RITUAL
    By Francis Wheen
    You must wake and call me early, call me early, mother dear;
    Tomorrow’ll be the happiest time of all the glad New-year;
    Of all the glad New-year, mother, the maddest, merriest day;
    For I’m to be Queen o’ the May, mother,
    I’m to be Queen o’ the May.
    – Tennyson, ‘The May Queen’
    SINCE 1978, the first Monday in May has been a bank holiday in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Why, then, is tomorrow a working day? Thereby hangs a tale – a bizarre saga of sex, socialism, pagan revels and political spite.
    So, without further ado, let’s go gathering nuts in May. The first nut is Andrew Mackay, the Conservative MP for Berkshire East. ‘I see no reason,’ he declared on 1 May 1992, ‘why we should be celebrating a socialist day when socialism is long since dead.’ A week later, the point was taken up by another hard-shelled Tory, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, who demanded that the ‘absurd’ May Day bank holiday should be moved to the autumn. Replying for the government, Lord St Davids said he could see no justification for messing about with the calendar.
    End of story? Oh dear me no. At the time, you may recall, the Tories were looking for a new ‘big idea’. Margaret Thatcher had privatised the public utilities, sold off council houses, bound and gagged the trade unions. What was there left for John Major to do, apart from introducing the Cones Hotline? Gillian Shephard, the then employment secretary, decided that Mackay and Boyd-Carpenter might be on to something. Only a few months after Lord St Davids’s assurance that there were no plans to tamper with May Day, she told the 1992 Conservative party conference that she was determined to kill off ‘that socialist holiday’.
    She gave two reasons. First, it had been imposed on Britain by Michael Foot and the TUC during the dark days of the last Labour government; second, it played havoc with British industry’s production schedules. ‘It is ridiculous,’ she declared, to loud applause. She then issued a ‘discussion document’, inviting suggestions for an alternative holiday.
    ‘It would be needless,’ Sir James Frazer wrote in his great study of folklore and ritual, The Golden Bough, ‘to illustrate at length the custom which has prevailed in various parts of Europe, such as England, France and Germany, of setting up a village May-tree or May-pole on May Day.’ He had reckoned without Gillian Shephard. Today, in her capacity as education secretary, she is forever complaining about the lamentable ignorance of schoolchildren. But how much history does she know? I wonder if she is even aware that her own Prime Minister’s surname comes from Maia, the Roman goddess of growth – to whom we also owe the merry month of May.
    True, Mrs Shephard isn’t the first person to come over all prudish at the thought of fertility rites. In the sixth century, St Augustine – the first Archbishop of Canterbury, rather than the author of City Of God – complained to the Pope that Kentish youngsters had put up floral branches from a May-tree outside his Cathedral; in 772, a maypole in North Germany was destroyed on the orders of Charlemagne.
    The greatest enemies of May festivities were, inevitably, the Puritans. Philip Stubbes, an exceedingly puritanical old misery-guts, wrote his Anatomie Of Abuses in 1583 to draw attention to the excesses that were prevalent in Merrie England: ‘Against May, Whitsonday, or other time, all the yung men and maides, olde men and wives, run gadding over night to the woods, groves, hils, and mountains, where they spend all the night in plesant pastimes. . .’ Worse still, they would erect a maypole (‘this stinkyng idol’), around which they danced ‘like as the heathen people did’.
    Jolly good fun it all sounds. But Stubbes assumed, correctly, that his readers would be shocked by the vision of young maidens cavorting round a huge phallic symbol. Hundreds of maypoles were demolished by killjoys in the early 17th century, and in 1644 Parliament outlawed them altogether. They returned to favour only after the Restoration of Charles II in 1660 – something that Gillian Shephard, as a good Tory royalist, ought to have noticed before she embarked on her Cromwellian crusade.
    Instead, she pressed on. The results of her ‘consultation exercise’ were leaked to the Times, which in May 1993 revealed on its front page that ‘the government will announce the demise of the May Day bank holiday from 1995 and its replacement by Trafalgar Day in October, according to Whitehall sources’. Shephard claimed that she had the full support of leading industrialists.
    Alas! The Institute of Directors and the Confederation of British Industry seemed to think otherwise. As an IoD spokesman said: ‘We’d rather keep May Day.’ Opposed by both employers and unions, Shephard’s big idea was clearly doomed. Fortunately for her, she was reshuffled to another job soon afterwards, bequeathing the problem to the new Employment Secretary, David Hunt.
    He could have done the decent thing by publicly admitting that the proposal had been nothing more than an ill-conceived stunt. But, of course, he didn’t.
    There is a tradition in Whitehall that embarrassing official proclamations are smuggled out in the week before Christmas, when nobody is paying attention; and Hunt gratefully took advantage of it. In an unpublicised written answer on 16 December 1993, he announced that ‘in the light of its goal of reducing burdens on business, the government has decided not to move the early May bank holiday from the first Monday in May on a permanent basis’. He added, however, that in 1995 the holiday would be postponed until the second Monday in May, ‘to link with events on or near VE day’ – and, one might add, to offer the wretched Shephard a small consolation prize.
    Since Hunt’s statement was put out sotto voce, this important news went unnoticed until last July. ‘It was only through sheer luck that we found out about the change,’ said an executive of Letts, which by then had printed seven million incorrect diaries. Meanwhile, travel companies had to spend hundreds of thousands of pounds reimbursing customers who had booked holidays for the 1995 May Day weekend. So much for the ‘goal of reducing burdens on business’.
    Still, Gillian Shephard needn’t worry. Striding blithely away from the wreckage, she is now being tipped as the next leader of the Conservative Party. But will she ever be Queen o’ the May, mother? I think not.
    *
    Which then prompted this piece by the man who had introduced the My Day bank holiday, Michael Foot:
    From The Independent, Tuesday 2 May 1995
    Long live our beloved May Day
    By Michael Foot
    Teaching Tories elementary history lessons is not an easy game, as their cavalier abolition of our beloved May Day has recently illustrated. And, now I come to think of it, cavalier is not the right word to describe their combined indecency and ill manners.
    As Francis Wheen brilliantly showed in one of the Sunday papers, the hatred of the maypole and all its phallic symbolism was much more a Roundhead delusion. But at least they knew what they were doing, or thought they did, which is more than can be said for the modern Tories who thought that maypoles had only been imported into the country by KGB agents taking time off from dining Labour politicians.
    I did have a special interest in the matter, as I happily and boastfully declare. The promise to make May Day a holiday was included in Labour’s 1974 manifesto: it reflected a deep historical commitment and the whole spirit of Labour’s international association. I remember especially, in May 1937, how the banners of the Spanish Republic fluttered beside those of our own London Labour Party and individual unions. It was an honourable tradition, indeed, and one which if properly translated into practice there and then could have stopped the whole Fascist onslaught on democratic Europe, and made the Second World War itself the Unnecessary War, as Winston Churchill himself belatedly called it.
    So there were good modern reasons as well as ancient ones for recognising May Day, and when I had the luck to introduce the actual measure, I cannot recall that any Tory was fool enough to object. A few weeks later I had the further honour to invite the Queen to give her approval, and she did it with such royal relish that I thought the May Day celebrations were secure for ever from the worst that Tory ignorance and malice could do.
    As the years have rolled by, ever more distinguished names have been added to the list of leading figures in our literature who did know what May Day meant, and said so: Mallory, Chaucer, Spenser, Pepys, Aubrey, Kilvert, Hazlitt, Dickens and, in this context, my own favourite, Samuel Taylor Coleridge: “Its original name,” he wrote, “is Wittentide, the time of choosing the Wits or wise men to the Wittenagemutte. It was consecrated to Bertha, the Goddess of Peace and Fertility, and no quarrels might be mentioned, no blood shed, during this time of the Goddess. The Maypole, then, is the English Tree of Liberty! Are there many yet standing?”
    Many more will be waving after the local elections on 4 May. So let’s appropriate that day too. Beautiful Bertha, by the way, is my candidate for Tony Blair’s Minister for Women. She bears a striking resemblance to Clare Short.
    The writer was leader of the Labour Party from 1980 to 1983.

  2. The following pieces on May Day from Francis Wheen (in the Observer!) and Michael Foot may be of interest:

    Happy May Day, everyone. I see that Keith Flett, our latter-day William Morris, has posted a piece headed ‘The Observer hates it: a brief history of the May Day Bank Holiday’, referring to an anti-holiday rant in yesterday’s paper. But the Observer hasn’t always hated it. This piece appeared in the paper on 30 April 1995:
    GILLIAN SHEPHARD AND PHALLIC RITUAL
    By Francis Wheen
    You must wake and call me early, call me early, mother dear;
    Tomorrow’ll be the happiest time of all the glad New-year;
    Of all the glad New-year, mother, the maddest, merriest day;
    For I’m to be Queen o’ the May, mother,
    I’m to be Queen o’ the May.
    – Tennyson, ‘The May Queen’
    SINCE 1978, the first Monday in May has been a bank holiday in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Why, then, is tomorrow a working day? Thereby hangs a tale – a bizarre saga of sex, socialism, pagan revels and political spite.
    So, without further ado, let’s go gathering nuts in May. The first nut is Andrew Mackay, the Conservative MP for Berkshire East. ‘I see no reason,’ he declared on 1 May 1992, ‘why we should be celebrating a socialist day when socialism is long since dead.’ A week later, the point was taken up by another hard-shelled Tory, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, who demanded that the ‘absurd’ May Day bank holiday should be moved to the autumn. Replying for the government, Lord St Davids said he could see no justification for messing about with the calendar.
    End of story? Oh dear me no. At the time, you may recall, the Tories were looking for a new ‘big idea’. Margaret Thatcher had privatised the public utilities, sold off council houses, bound and gagged the trade unions. What was there left for John Major to do, apart from introducing the Cones Hotline? Gillian Shephard, the then employment secretary, decided that Mackay and Boyd-Carpenter might be on to something. Only a few months after Lord St Davids’s assurance that there were no plans to tamper with May Day, she told the 1992 Conservative party conference that she was determined to kill off ‘that socialist holiday’.
    She gave two reasons. First, it had been imposed on Britain by Michael Foot and the TUC during the dark days of the last Labour government; second, it played havoc with British industry’s production schedules. ‘It is ridiculous,’ she declared, to loud applause. She then issued a ‘discussion document’, inviting suggestions for an alternative holiday.
    ‘It would be needless,’ Sir James Frazer wrote in his great study of folklore and ritual, The Golden Bough, ‘to illustrate at length the custom which has prevailed in various parts of Europe, such as England, France and Germany, of setting up a village May-tree or May-pole on May Day.’ He had reckoned without Gillian Shephard. Today, in her capacity as education secretary, she is forever complaining about the lamentable ignorance of schoolchildren. But how much history does she know? I wonder if she is even aware that her own Prime Minister’s surname [Major] comes from Maia, the Roman goddess of growth – to whom we also owe the merry month of May.
    True, Mrs Shephard isn’t the first person to come over all prudish at the thought of fertility rites. In the sixth century, St Augustine – the first Archbishop of Canterbury, rather than the author of City Of God – complained to the Pope that Kentish youngsters had put up floral branches from a May-tree outside his Cathedral; in 772, a maypole in North Germany was destroyed on the orders of Charlemagne.
    The greatest enemies of May festivities were, inevitably, the Puritans. Philip Stubbes, an exceedingly puritanical old misery-guts, wrote his Anatomie Of Abuses in 1583 to draw attention to the excesses that were prevalent in Merrie England: ‘Against May, Whitsonday, or other time, all the yung men and maides, olde men and wives, run gadding over night to the woods, groves, hils, and mountains, where they spend all the night in plesant pastimes. . .’ Worse still, they would erect a maypole (‘this stinkyng idol’), around which they danced ‘like as the heathen people did’.
    Jolly good fun it all sounds. But Stubbes assumed, correctly, that his readers would be shocked by the vision of young maidens cavorting round a huge phallic symbol. Hundreds of maypoles were demolished by killjoys in the early 17th century, and in 1644 Parliament outlawed them altogether. They returned to favour only after the Restoration of Charles II in 1660 – something that Gillian Shephard, as a good Tory royalist, ought to have noticed before she embarked on her Cromwellian crusade.
    Instead, she pressed on. The results of her ‘consultation exercise’ were leaked to the Times, which in May 1993 revealed on its front page that ‘the government will announce the demise of the May Day bank holiday from 1995 and its replacement by Trafalgar Day in October, according to Whitehall sources’. Shephard claimed that she had the full support of leading industrialists.
    Alas! The Institute of Directors and the Confederation of British Industry seemed to think otherwise. As an IoD spokesman said: ‘We’d rather keep May Day.’ Opposed by both employers and unions, Shephard’s big idea was clearly doomed. Fortunately for her, she was reshuffled to another job soon afterwards, bequeathing the problem to the new Employment Secretary, David Hunt.
    He could have done the decent thing by publicly admitting that the proposal had been nothing more than an ill-conceived stunt. But, of course, he didn’t.
    There is a tradition in Whitehall that embarrassing official proclamations are smuggled out in the week before Christmas, when nobody is paying attention; and Hunt gratefully took advantage of it. In an unpublicised written answer on 16 December 1993, he announced that ‘in the light of its goal of reducing burdens on business, the government has decided not to move the early May bank holiday from the first Monday in May on a permanent basis’. He added, however, that in 1995 the holiday would be postponed until the second Monday in May, ‘to link with events on or near VE day’ – and, one might add, to offer the wretched Shephard a small consolation prize.
    Since Hunt’s statement was put out sotto voce, this important news went unnoticed until last July. ‘It was only through sheer luck that we found out about the change,’ said an executive of Letts, which by then had printed seven million incorrect diaries. Meanwhile, travel companies had to spend hundreds of thousands of pounds reimbursing customers who had booked holidays for the 1995 May Day weekend. So much for the ‘goal of reducing burdens on business’.
    Still, Gillian Shephard needn’t worry. Striding blithely away from the wreckage, she is now being tipped as the next leader of the Conservative Party. But will she ever be Queen o’ the May, mother? I think not.
    *
    Which then prompted this piece by the man who had introduced the May Day bank holiday:
    From The Independent, Tuesday 2 May 1995
    Long live our beloved May Day
    By Michael Foot
    Teaching Tories elementary history lessons is not an easy game, as their cavalier abolition of our beloved May Day has recently illustrated. And, now I come to think of it, cavalier is not the right word to describe their combined indecency and ill manners.
    As Francis Wheen brilliantly showed in one of the Sunday papers, the hatred of the maypole and all its phallic symbolism was much more a Roundhead delusion. But at least they knew what they were doing, or thought they did, which is more than can be said for the modern Tories who thought that maypoles had only been imported into the country by KGB agents taking time off from dining Labour politicians.
    I did have a special interest in the matter, as I happily and boastfully declare. The promise to make May Day a holiday was included in Labour’s 1974 manifesto: it reflected a deep historical commitment and the whole spirit of Labour’s international association. I remember especially, in May 1937, how the banners of the Spanish Republic fluttered beside those of our own London Labour Party and individual unions. It was an honourable tradition, indeed, and one which if properly translated into practice there and then could have stopped the whole Fascist onslaught on democratic Europe, and made the Second World War itself the Unnecessary War, as Winston Churchill himself belatedly called it.
    So there were good modern reasons as well as ancient ones for recognising May Day, and when I had the luck to introduce the actual measure, I cannot recall that any Tory was fool enough to object. A few weeks later I had the further honour to invite the Queen to give her approval, and she did it with such royal relish that I thought the May Day celebrations were secure for ever from the worst that Tory ignorance and malice could do.
    As the years have rolled by, ever more distinguished names have been added to the list of leading figures in our literature who did know what May Day meant, and said so: Mallory, Chaucer, Spenser, Pepys, Aubrey, Kilvert, Hazlitt, Dickens and, in this context, my own favourite, Samuel Taylor Coleridge: “Its original name,” he wrote, “is Wittentide, the time of choosing the Wits or wise men to the Wittenagemutte. It was consecrated to Bertha, the Goddess of Peace and Fertility, and no quarrels might be mentioned, no blood shed, during this time of the Goddess. The Maypole, then, is the English Tree of Liberty! Are there many yet standing?”
    Many more will be waving after the local elections on 4 May. So let’s appropriate that day too. Beautiful Bertha, by the way, is my candidate for Tony Blair’s Minister for Women. She bears a striking resemblance to Clare Short.
    The writer was leader of the Labour Party from 1980 to 1983.

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