Chapter 69: Morris dancing. Borderline racist?


Extraordinary picture, isn’t it.

Saturday morning I saw an article in the Telegraph about a photo of David Cameron posing with some Morris dancers in Banbury.  The Morris dancers had their faces blacked.  Since then the Guardian picked up on the story.  And the Independent.  And the Daily Mail.  And so on.  Twitter is going a little crazy for it right now, unsurprisingly.

So, is Morris dancing racist?

The Telegraph says that it isn’t, and congratulates the Prime Minister for ‘doing his research’.  It’s a proud British tradition, dating back to the 16th century.  An official spokesperson for the Prime Minister said that “I don’t see it as something on which any kind of comment is needed.”  And apparently the Prime Minister agreed.

But I do.  I’ve been part of a Morris side—specifically the kind that black up: Border Morris—for about 7 years now.  We usually dance at Banbury Folk Festival.  I don’t recognise the people in the photo above (that’s kind of the point of the face paint, as it happens) but I’m sure I will have danced out with Foxs Morris, and had a drink with them and played tunes with them.  And I’m sure I will again.

And I think that for anyone who is serious about celebrating English traditions, it’s a very important question to ask, so I’m going to ask it again:

Is the Morris racist?

Well, the answer is simple.

Probably.  And then probably not.  And then perhaps a little bit.  And then almost certainly.  And then probably not.  And then almost certainly not.  Almost.

Morris dancing has been around since the 15th century.  Probably.  We don’t even really know that.  It’s old.  And my point is that it has been done in different ways, in different political climates, for different reasons, again and again and again.  It has mutated like an internet meme.

If you want a potted history of the Morris then the Wikipedia page is probably a good start:

Not a great deal is known, actually, but the famous events are there: early references by disgruntled medieval monks; a performance for Henry VII; William Shakespeare’s most popular actor going out on a Morris dancing bender known as the ‘nine days wonder’; frowned on by the Puritans; decline in the Industrial Revolution; championed by Cecil Sharp in 1899; revival in 20th century.

There is actually a lot more on Border Morris specifically, including the black-face aspect:

I had always understood that there were no racist connotations to Border Morris dancing, and that the tradition came from a time when busking was considered to be begging, and begging was illegal.  Morris dancers in coal-mining towns and villages on the Welsh border would smear their faces in coal dust, wear black hats and black coats with strips of cloth sown onto them, and then go out to dance and collect money.  And they’d round off the ensemble by sticking pheasant feathers in their hair, to proudly proclaim that they were poachers too.  It was a very effective disguise then, and it still is now now.  The coat of ‘tatters’ hides your body shape – particularly when you’re dancing.  I play in the band, rather than dance, and the tradition is that we wear all black and a coat of evening tails, and even I have met Morris dancers who haven’t recognised me without my make-up.

So this seemed like a plausible explanation to me.  In fact, it still seems plausible to me.  But fairly recently, on a bored evening, I started researching it for myself, and I came to the conclusion that it’s a bit more complicated than that.  Now I think it’s not the origin of Border Morris but just one thread of many.  And a relationship between blacking up for Morris and racial caricaturing now seems pretty inescapable to me.

So I’m going to offer my own personal opinion on where the Morris came from, and how it developed.  I’m not an academic, or a journalist or a writer.  Researching is not my profession.  But I do a lot of it when looking for old and historically-interesting songs and tunes to perform.  And I’ve been doing it long enough to feel I know what I’m talking about.  (Side note: this history is going to be long, and is also going to be pretty Wikipedia-heavy.  I know Wikipedia is not always 100% accurate, but I do believe it’s rigorous enough for any debate outside of, say, academia or law.)

And with that, I give you…


 A History of Morris Dancing

(This is how you write totally subjective history, by the way.  You call it ‘a history’ rather than ‘the history’.  It makes opinion sound so much more authoritative.  And it worked for Simon Schama so it’s going to bloody well work for me…)

I think it all started with Al-Andalus.  First, a bit of historical context.


The Moors of Spain

In the early 8th century the Umayyad empire conquered Spain and formed an Islamic province that became known as Al-Andalus.  For nearly 700 years it remained prosperous, sophisticated, and deeply Islamic.  And I think it’s easy to underestimate just how profoundly disturbing this fact was to the Christian nations to the north.  Particularly into the medieval period, religion governed everything in Christian Europe.  There was virtually no science, no politics, no philosophy, no art outside of Christianity.  So if you were a medieval Christian… well, Christianity had better be the true religion!  Because you were invested in it up to your eyeballs, and if it was a sham then everything—really, everything—that you believed was false.

So how would you react when you came into contact with Islam?  Here was this culture that considered itself to be a development, an improvement, on your religion in just the same way that you saw yours as an improvement on the Old Testament of the Jews.  It was younger, newer, more energetic, more dynamic, more sophisticated, more stylish, better educated.  And, God damn them, much much more wealthy!  It had an empire comparable with the size of the Roman Empire at its peak, when Europe was struggling to come out of its ‘Dark Ages’.

And here’s the problem: if Christianity was the true religion… why were the Muslims doing so well for themselves?

One of the basic tenets of the Islamic faith is the virtue of the pursuit of knowledge, which meant that Islamic states generally had a much more benign view of science than their Christian counterparts (see one of my favourite ever Twitter trends: #MuslimApologies – “I’m so sorry for coffee, cheques, parachutes, chemistry, inoculations, soap, shampoo, cameras…”).  And that would have made it a bugger to compete with economically.

So I’m not at all surprised that Islam was feared and hated in Europe.  I’m not surprised that so many knights would have been prepared to sacrifice literally everything they had in the ‘holy crusade’ to conquer Jerusalem.  Because I imagine that conquest would have been the only way that a pious Christian could convince themselves that God really was on their side.  ‘Maybe God was just giving the Muslims a free reign now, building them up to smash them down later, like the city of Nineveh.’


The Fall of Al-Andalus

So imagine how thrilled you would have been in the 15th century when the fortunes of this golden empire right on your doorstep went into serious decline.  A crusade was declared against the Muslims in Spain, and in 1492 the Christians finally took the whole peninsula.

This final defeat is still celebrated in some parts of Spain.  But it is also celebrated as far away the Croatian island of Korčula in a traditional sword dance known as the Moreška (‘Morris-ka’?).  And in Italy with the Moresca.  And I would be very surprised if it wasn’t also a root influence of another tradition that has a very close association with Morris dancing: the Mummers play.

This was a big big deal.  Because… hey, maybe the Christians were right all along!  Maybe it was the true religion after all.

And here’s where I start to wildly speculate, because there just aren’t enough written records to be conclusive.  I think that plays and performances toured medieval Europe endlessly reenacting this glorious Christian triumph.  I imagine there were dances that celebrated the noble Christians against the wicked and heretical Moors.

But what I think happened was that these performances produced an unexpected cultural hit.  I suspect that, in trying to make the Moors seem diabolical, they inadvertently made them look… sexy.  The monster suddenly seems far more interesting and attractive than the ‘forces of good’ that were fighting it.

Like Godzilla, or Spike from ‘Buffy The Vampire Slayer’.  (I’m all about the highbrow cultural references.)


Exotic Dancing

And I think it was a hit that ran and ran.  The good townsfolk and villagefolk said ‘Yeah yeah, we know, the brave Christians… can we see the cool guys with the bells again?’

And so the ‘Moorish’ dancing that was originally intended as a caricature became appropriated as something exotic, perhaps even benign.

But here I want to clarify: I don’t know whether it was originally a negative caricature, or a positive one.  And I suspect that, although race may have been involved, it wasn’t really the point.  I suspect that there was prejudice here, but it was all about religion.  A black Christian would have been considered inherently virtuous in a way that a white Muslim would not.

But even if race wasn’t the point at the time, it definitely was part of the story.  References are made in the reigns of both Henry VII and Henry VIII to court events in which people ‘disguised’ for a Moorish dance, with their faces blacked.  And those are some of the earliest references we have to Morris dancing, or something that looks pretty much like it.

That said, I suspect that as time went on religion and race because less important to the performance of Morris dancing.  During the reign of Henry VIII the Christian world became split into the Protestants and the Catholics, and suddenly the threat of Islam (which by now was waning as a world power even more) seemed far less important.  When we see images of Morris dancing from Shakespeare’s time, they don’t seem to be in black-face.  And I think Shakespeare’s portrayal of the Moor in his play ‘Othello’ gives a good indication of a softer and more considerate view of this old religious enemy.

What had once been deeply threatening was now just seen as exotic.


The Slave Trade

That began to change with Europe’s embracing of the slave trade.  Slowly at first.

Ironically, just prior the slave-trading privateers like Francis Drake, the slave trade had been predominately run by Muslims, and often resulted in African ships kidnapping people from the south coast of England and selling them into slavery.

But the rise in European naval supremacy combined with the Industrial Revolution created a slave trade like the world had never seen.  An industrial system of dehumanising cruelty.  And I think you can see attitudes changing in English popular culture.  As Britain got very rich from large-scale colonial projects, a new stereotype started to form.  Gone were the exotic but terrifying Moors, with their strangely intricate culture.  And in its place were uncivilised, primitive, almost animal ‘natives’.  So lacking in the power of reason, so governed by their most base desires, that it would be a mercy for a more civilised race to rule them.  To put them to some useful work.  They’d enjoy that, like a horse or a dog or any other beast of burden.  It would give some direction to their otherwise chaotic and confused lives.


Morris goes to Bedlam

But that didn’t really stain its way into British culture until the Industrial Revolution got underway.  Let’s skip back a bit.

There comes a point where references to Morris dancing move out of the courts of monarchs and onto the streets.  In the 17th century Morris dancing becomes written about much more, and it’s often seen as a disruptive force.  That might partly be due to the written views of zealous puritans, but it could also be because there was a great big bloody civil war in the middle of the century.  Law and order broke down all over the country, and there were a lot more disruptive people about.  There was an element of anarchy in the air, and in the culture.  In the politics of the Dissenters, in the ‘lords of misrule’, and in the ‘Bedlam Morris’.

It makes me wonder, were Morris dancers a particularly violent bunch of troublemakers?  Or was the country full of violent troublemakers, and some of them liked to drink and dance, and the fashion for that (outside of the Court) was Morris dancing?

Does it matter?

Well, I think it matters when considering the charge of racism in Morris dancing, particularly Border Morris, because one recurring feature of the Morris is disguise.  And it’s not just black hats and tatters.  There are other kinds of Morris dancing that involve disguise.

There’s Molly dancing.

This is a tradition where men dress up as women, and it presumably has some associations with Molly houses, which were basically 18th century brothels for men that provided various kinds of taboos: homosexual sex, group sex and cross-dressing.

But the association might simply be that public dancing for money was seen as begging, which was illegal.  And dressing up as a woman was a disguise, and perhaps an entertaining (and therefore more profitable) disguise.

So time for a little more speculative social anthropology.

I wonder whether these disguises were actually specific to Morris dancing, or whether they were used for any activity in which groups of people wanted to commit crimes in public without being easily identified.  During the Welsh Rebecca Riots of the 1830s/40s, men dressed as women in order to, well, riot.  In the 80s, when I was growing up, every self-respecting bank robber would wear a pair of tights over their face.  These days you might wear a motorbike helmet or a hoodie (although could that even be as old as Robin ‘Hood’?)  If you’re into public disorder specifically rather than crime generally you might want to wear the Guy Fawkes mask made famous by the film of Alan Moore’s ‘V For Vendetta’.  (Unrelated question: can anyone tell me why the hero tortures Natalie Portman in that film?  Is it just basically for shits and giggles?)

Again I say, the Border Morris outfit is a pretty dang good disguise.  I see it work on a regular basis.  I wouldn’t be surprised if the idea for Morris dancing in it came from the fact that Morris dancing was historically done with black face-paint.  But if you look at the whole bizarre outfit, I think makes much more sense as a disguise akin to the Guy Fawkes costume, rather than a racial caricature like a Minstrel show, which often exaggerates the clothing’s formality (to indicate a servant or a person dressing ridiculously above their social station) or its raggedness.

And that, in a nutshell, is the reason why I still take part in Border Morris, and why I’d be happy to have a drink with the members of Foxs Morris should the occasion arise.  I believe that this particular type of Morris dancing uses black face-paint in a way that is definitely not an attempt to racially caricature (I wouldn’t do it otherwise), although I have recently come to the conclusion that it might have been inspired by a caricature of a religious and military enemy that happened to be black, rather than, say, the stereotype that was used to justify the Atlantic slave trade.

So… that’s that then?

Ah, if only it were that simple.  There’s more history to come.


The Rise of Country Dancing, and the Music Hall

Morris dancing, which is one of the few aspects of English ‘folk’ culture that I think can genuinely be called ‘folk’, seemed to decline in popularity as a more organised and commercial form of popular music began to take over.  First there was the Country Dancing, and then the Music Hall.

This video clip beings with an illustration of the point in which even the royal and aristocratic courts started to lose interest in the rigid formality of court dancing.  Although that only lasts for a few seconds, and otherwise it has nothing to do with this issue whatsoever.  It’s just an excuse for me to post this video of Christopher Walken dancing.  Again.

Seriously, I love Christopher Walken’s acting in a way that makes my girlfriend uncomfortable, but I believe this may be his best work.



Cecil Sharp and the Morris Revival

Then Cecil Sharp discovered the tradition of the Morris in much the same way that Captain James Cook discovered Australia.  It had already been there for a while, but it was just waiting for the right person to stick a flag in it, so to speak.

Morris dancing became seen as an example of England’s very own ‘primitive’ subculture.  Almost in terms of ‘the Noble Savage’.  (Or is that me being unfairly cynical?)

But remember the trend for racial stereotyping basic on the slave trade?  The Atlantic slave trade had been outlawed almost everywhere by the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, but internal trade continued within the United States until the 1860s, and it bred a toxic culture of racial prejudice that produced race-hate groups like the Ku Klux Klan.  It also produced the Minstrel show, and variations on derogatory racial stereotypes used for entertainment.  This form of entertainment was popular in Britain too.

In the early part of the 20th century Border Morris dancing was often described as a verb based on the N word.  Although it would be neat but totally unfair to say this was entirely an American influence: England had developed some pretty repugnant twists on Darwinism and the idea of a ‘master race’ by this point, and didn’t need any lessons in racial stereotyping.

So although Border Morris may have originated as something apart from a racial caricature, it seems that the racism might have come looking for it.  Are there any elements of current Border Morris that originated at this time, that were intended as a demeaning racial stereotype?  I’m not aware of any, but I think it’s not impossible.


So how do you celebrate your traditions if they have racist elements?

Well, first of all if it’s a national tradition and the nation is more than 45 seconds old… there will be racist elements.  If that nation has ever been involved with a war.  Countries compete with other countries, for resources, for national identity, for prestige, for money and for power.  Groups of people at war with other groups of people have always tried to stereotype them as inferior and worthy of hate.

That’s not to condone racism.  But it is to recognise that the challenge of coming to terms with your national history will always involve its racism, its bigotry, its cruelty.  If the history is honest then the heroes and the villains will always be uncomfortably hard to distinguish.

But history is important because otherwise we keep making the same mistakes.  So I believe it is so important to make you sure you never—and I’m sorry, I can’t think of another word to describe it—whitewash the past.

I believe that English society should deal with its cultural past in the same way that a person should deal with their personal past.  We should be proud of our achievements.  (Not smug, although that is something that the English are uncommonly skilled at.)  But we should also be honest, and critical, of our failings.

If you celebrate a cultural tradition by perpetrating a racial stereotype then that is simply being racist, and the fact that it’s a racist tradition doesn’t make it any better.

But I believe it is possible, even necessary, to broadly celebrate a tradition but to strongly criticise parts of it.


But what about actually blacking up?  Do you approve of it?  Do you do it?

No, I don’t do it.  I never have, and I don’t ever intend to.  I’ve always made that clear with the Border side I’m with, and I’ve always made it clear why.

I understand that it’s a difficult issue with not enough clear facts, so I don’t tell other people that they shouldn’t do it.  But no, I don’t approve of it.

For as long as I’ve been doing Border Morris I have always painted my face as a skeleton.  (Except once when I did Heath Ledger’s take on The Joker, but it just made small children cry.)  (Even more than Morris normally does.)

When I started, I didn’t think I was dressing up as a racial stereotype, and I still don’t think that, although I recognise it’s probably more complicated than I thought.

It’s just that I am passionate about celebrating, and criticising, English culture.  I am a political nationalist: I think nations are a good idea, and a big improvement on the city states and warring clans that came before them.  But I think nationalism is like reheated rice: when it goes wrong it goes really wrong.  And I believe in citizens, not genes.  I don’t believe that a person is English by blood, by race or by temperament.  I believe they are English by signing a piece of paper, nothing more.  And more, much more than this, I do not believe that England is better than any other nation.  (Rain, bad football and Jimmy Savile – are you fucking serious?)

And here’s the thing.

If you’re passionate about celebrating English culture then you don’t ever start a conversation with the words “I’m just going to black up now…”  Whatever the reason.

And perhaps that may sound like an over-the-top reaction.  But I’ve always felt that whether or not it its history is or isn’t suspect is not really the point.  The use of black-face by Minstrel show performers in the 19th and 20th centuries was part of a cultural denigration that still has power today.  It was part of a mindset that was deeply and overtly racist.  And it’s really not something I want the traditions I celebrate to have anything to do with.

And it is NOT as though Morris, Border or any other, is so rigidly formulated that you can’t change it.  It’s looser than a bounder’s morals.  There’s so little that’s actually passed down – we’re virtually making stuff out of air here.

Border Morris is a fascinating, exhilarating and bizarre dance tradition.  It’s also a great excuse to get shit-wrecked in a car park in Deddington without the police moving you on.

You can do it without black-face.  You really can.

Black-face, for me, is right on the border – no pun intended.  (Okay, maybe slightly intended, as it’s in this blog post’s title.)  It is borderline racist.  What I mean by that is that you can ‘get away with it’.  You can legitimately say that it is not a tradition that uses offensive racial stereotypes.  You can also say that sure, maybe it used to, but we don’t know that for sure – there just isn’t enough evidence!  And if it clearly doesn’t now but maybe… maybe it used to about a hundred years ago…

But you know you’re going to offend people.  And if that sounds a bit too glamorous, let me put it another way.  You know you’re going to hurt someone who didn’t do anything to you.  Whether they’ve misunderstood you or not.  You could just not do it.

There are sides like Boggart’s Breakfast that paint their faces blue.  There are sides like Mythago that wear wonderful masks.  They must sweat like bastards but they look awesome, and I respect them for it.

Why are you actually following this tradition?  And what is it that you are doing Border Morris for, what is it that you want to achieve, that would be compromised by losing the black-face?  If you want the tradition to be something that brings people together, something that’s inclusive, something that’s a cause for celebration… then… isn’t avoiding blacking up a compromise that’s worth making?


And what about the Morris people you’re with?

In the side that I belong to, the women paint their faces with patterns and designs, but the men paint their faces black.  And I said that I wouldn’t do Border Morris if I thought the traditions were racist.  I also wouldn’t do it if I thought the people were racist.  I know for a fact that the ones I know well (it’s a large side) would be absolutely horrified if anything they said or did was considered to be bigoted in any way.

The people I do Morris with, just to be absolutely clear, are amongst some of the warmest, kindest, funniest, dirtiest, sweetest, hardest drinking and most fundamentally decent people I have ever met.  I have so little time these days, and I’ve been useless and barely been to practice this season, and have actually meant to give up on several occasions in the past because I’m so busy, but I could never bring myself to.  Because I would miss the people.

And whatever ideas of ‘tradition’ may have tempted me in the beginning, the reason why I keep doing it now is because of the people.  I love them like a family.  In fact, even now I still probably see them more than I see some of my immediate family.  There have been really bad times when they’ve really helped me out.

And the reason why I haven’t ever actually made a fuss about the black-face (other than just expressing my opinion) is because they’re grown-ups, they’re good friends, and I know them well enough to know that I could never force them to do anything they didn’t want to do, no matter how hard I tried.  They’re really not those sort of people.  Also… to be honest, I’m probably the kind of person that values friendship more than principles. (Which is the reason why I’m not going to mention the side by name in this post, or at least not until the media flurry as died down, as I think that would just be tempting fate.)


And the Prime Minister? 

My gushing loyalty does not extend, however, to the current Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, pictured at the top of this blog post.

What was he celebrating (or at least endorsing) the tradition for?

Did he realise it would be controversial?  Yes.  Yes he did.  I don’t believe for a second that a Prime Minister who used to work in PR could possibly fail see the potential controversy of posing with people in black-face.

So why do it?  Perhaps it really was just enjoying a day out at Banbury Folk Festival.  It would be very politically naive if so.  I think the clue to his motivation lies in the comment given by his official spokesperson in that Telegraph article.  The comment was that ‘no comment was needed’.

No comment needed?  For any prominent politician seen to endorse performance in black-face?  I’ve felt the need to write a whole essay on it, and even I haven’t heard of me!

I think it was a political tactic.  Perhaps carefully planned, perhaps even semi-spontaneous.  But definitely deliberate.

You wait for the Twitter firestorm.  You wait for the Guardian, the Independent, the Mirror to foam at the mouth.

And then you wait for the backlash from the Telegraph, the Spectator and the Daily Mail.  These smug privately-educated North London media liberals who have never worked a proper job in their life and don’t understand anything outside the M25!  They say it’s racist.  They don’t understand Englishness, they don’t understand tradition and their history is wrong!  It was never racist.  Classic ‘Nanny State’.  Political Correctness Gone Mad.  (We should just use the initials.  PCGM.)

Perhaps it’s an attempt to win support back from the far-right UK Independence Party, after it recently won its first parliamentary seat.  Or perhaps it’s just preaching to the converted.  But it certainly leaves a bad taste in my mouth. What kind of message does this send to the country?  What kind of a nation are you hoping to create?  A responsible Conservative Prime Minister (and yes, I do believe such a thing is possible) would feel the need to explain why they were doing it, or at least offer some comment acknowledging the offence it might cause, even if they felt that offence was undeserved.  They would understand that they are a political symbol for the government of the whole country, and they would want to be, and appear to be, sympathetic to any ethnic minorities living in the country.

A responsible Prime Minister of any persuasion would feel that a comment was needed here, because not that many people know the full story of the Border Morris tradition.  Historians don’t know the story.  Not even Border Morris members know the full story!


So I guess it’s down me again, isn’t it

Well, sadly, if you want a job done right, you usually have to do it yourself.  So, in the absence of a comment from the office of the Prime Minister of the current government, I suppose it’ll have to come from little old muggins.  Here goes.

With genuine trepidation, and bearing in mind that most of them have been doing it a lot longer than I have and have probably thought hard about this already, I would like invite all Morris dancers that black up to consider one more time changing from simple black face to some other form of face paint or disguise.  Not because the hysterical media tells them too.  Not because patronising politicians tell them to.  Not because pedantic members of the public who don’t understand Morris tell them to.  Not even because some young child who isn’t white might quite understandably misinterpret it as a racist gesture and be seriously distressed by it (although I personally find this one the most compelling reason).

Not for any of these reasons, but just out of common decency.  Out of the same decency that means you don’t block the toilet up with toilet paper, or park your car halfway between two car park spaces, or shout things at people out of the passenger window while speeding by.  None of these things are illegal.  It’s just being rude to strangers.

And that is not a tradition that is worth celebrating.  It’s just being an arse.


In the mood for Morris. Brighton Day of Dance 2011.
In the mood for Morris. Brighton Day of Dance 2011.


Update 16/10/14 : An Omission, a Correction and a Clarification

Oh you poor bastards – there’s a more!  A whole lot more…

Just to explain, the reason why I write these long ranty blog things (such as this and this) is because I assume that at some point someone is going to ask me my opinion on them.  And I have all kinds of thoughts about them, but can’t express them very coherently.  So I write them all down.

After frantically ‘brain dumping’ my thoughts on Tuesday, trying to get as many of the key points down as I could, I eventually had to tell myself: okay, it’s done.  Just press ‘Publish’ and let it go.

But enough interesting points have been raised by other people that I realise I have more to say.  Sometimes it takes a while to work out where the fault lines of controversy and disagreement really are.

So, sorry, but… here we go again.


Omission: the Black Acts

I forgot to mention the Black Act of 1723.  (Thanks Robin Grey on Facebook for pointing this out!)  And this is important, because this was a law aimed at punishing anyone caught belonging to one of the ‘Blacks’ gangs at the time.  The Blacks gangs (e.g. the Waltham Blacks, the Windsor Blacks etc.) would black up their faces as a disguise to go poaching.  And it seems pretty clear, to me at least, that this was nothing to do with racial caricature: this was not a performance, this was a criminal activity.

This, I think, strongly reinforces the idea that the standard Border Morris costume has nothing to do with race.  The pheasant feathers in the hats suggest that its origins lie in these poaching gangs, or the culture that they were part of.


Correction: how cynical was the Prime Minister?

In his article ‘The black-up morris dancing row shows that Britain isn’t one nation, but many’ for the Guardian, Martin Kettle writes:

So David Cameron was cleverly sending a dog-whistle racist message when he posed with blacked-up English morris dancers at the Banbury folk festival last weekend, was he? Frankly, if you believe that this was Cameron’s intention in what was in all probability just an innocent prime ministerial kindness, then you will believe anything.

Yes, I was wrong to imply that Cameron himself might have been cynically trying to appeal to disgruntled UKIP voters.

He was asked to be in the photo, after all, and agreed.  He didn’t initiate it.  And whether he used to work in PR or not, it’s very unlikely that he was thinking in those terms.  That’s not really his MO, frankly, and thinking about issues like that is not really his job.

That’s why he has a press office.

So let’s deal with his press office for a moment.

This is where the dark arts of politics take place.  Remember Alastair Campbell’s sexy dossier?  Remember Andy Coulson’s phone hacking conviction?  These are the people who work in this type of job.  The political PR game is as cynical as it gets, because there is always so much at stake.

And if you don’t believe that then you’ll probably believe anything.  And anything they want you to believe.

One of the drawbacks of the British style of parliamentary democracy is that to a certain extent it is a popularity contest.  If you are a prime ministerial candidate you just can’t go around offending large chunks of the population, or you’ll never get enough votes to be Prime Minister.

That’s why you are sat down and drilled, bullied, instructed right from the start by people who know how to navigate through the shark-infested waters of British tabloid, and broadsheet, journalism.

Can I joke that I enjoy porn?  ‘Absolutely under no circumstances.’

Can I say I’m loving First Aid Kit’s new album?  ‘You will look like an idiot.’

Can I wear a baseball cap?  ‘No.  Just no.’

Can I appear in this photo with people in black-face?  ‘Sure. If you want people to call you David-Ahm-Just-Off-To-Find-Mah-White-Hood-An’-Do-Me-Some-Lynchin’-Cameron.’

And I’m being glib about it, but politicians need a press office.  And a press office that is as cynical as the press, and all of us voters, are. 

So I want to correct what I said earlier, and instead suggest that the Prime Minister’s ‘official spokesman’ who was quoted in the Telegraph knew perfectly well what kind of impact that photo would make.  If he didn’t, I would have fired him, because he would have been a terrible official spokesman.  And I would be amazed if Cameron didn’t quickly check with the press office first whether appearing in those photos would be a massive headache for them.  If he wasn’t in the habit of doing that, I can’t imagine he would have been elected in the first place.

And again I say, the problem was not so much being in the photo.  The problem was failing to acknowledge that it might cause offence, and failing to offer an explanation to the many people who don’t know about Border Morris.  Yes, that really is what a Prime Minister, or at least their press office, needs to do.


Clarification: why the ‘blacking up’ issue still matters

When I originally posted this on social media I said ‘I never know whether I’m overreacting or underreacting’.  But I feel I do know now.

It seems clear to me that for a lot of people, particularly older people, the whole debate is a very annoying overreaction.  They understandably say “Don’t lecture me on things that I understand better than you!”  If, as Martin Kettle in that Guardian article points out, the Border tradition almost certainly stems from the Blacks gangs, and not from racial caricatures, then the whole thing is just a lot of ignorant and hysterical nonsense.

That’s fine if you’re a journalist who wants to prove you’re the smartest guy in the room.

But if you actually participate in the tradition, and you passionately want to make it as inclusive as possible, this issue is a big problem.

Because racial caricaturing might well have been part of Morris dancing before Border began, and it might well have been part of it around the turn of the 20th century too.

Put it this way:

It cannot be proven that blacking up in Morris dancing has nothing to do with racial caricaturing.

‘Well Jesus, so what?’ you might cry as you throw your arms in the air.

Because I want this to be a living tradition, which welcomes everybody.  And it is likely to provoke a visceral reaction of disgust in anyone who is not white and has experienced racial prejudice at some point in their lives.

‘Then maybe they should just grow a thicker skin, so to speak?  If there’s such a faint association with racial caricaturing, maybe they should stop overreacting and learn to live with it.’

Maybe.  But…

Picture a swastika

The swastika is a very very old symbol, with a history that stretches back far far before Adolf Hitler.  I think it would be crazy to go round the world and try to remove all of the historic examples of swastika in art and in architecture.

But let’s say you were rediscovering a traditional dance, like Border Morris, in which the costume involved wearing swastikas.  Not the Nazi ones, reversed, in white circle with a red background.  The older ones.  Some of the tradition was just lost to time.  Some of it you just had to guess.  Some of it was a bit bizarre and confusing, so you didn’t include it.  But you carried a great big flag with an old-fashioned swastika on it.

You would probably have the Anti-Defamation League on you like a falling piano before long.

And you could argue that this was part of the tradition, and so there’s nothing racist about it.  And you might win the argument.  You might not: the Anti-Defamation League fight these things pretty hard.

But at some point you would have to answer the question: ‘If it’s a living tradition rather than a historical re-enactment, with new things being added to it, constantly being reinterpreted, then why, out of all of the different practices and behaviours that make tradition, did you choose to keep the swastika?  That says something about who you are, doesn’t it?’

And you can expect that a lot of Jewish people, particularly older people, will be disgusted by the dance and stay the hell away.  And you can tell them that they’re overreacting, but there’s some very brutal recent cultural memory at work, and you’re unlikely to change their minds.

It would be like telling cruel jokes about someone at their funeral, and then telling the mourners: “Shit, folks – it’s a joke!  Lighten up…”

The ADL and other organisations fight these things hard for a very specific reason.

People of Jewish descent, and people of African descent, have faced the threat of enslavement and even extermination, again, and again, and again, through history.

Not once, not twice.  But many times, over centuries, and affecting millions.  Had Hitler’s armies won the war (which they nearly did) it is very possible that nearly all of the Jews in the world would be dead.  As it was, as we all know, millions were murdered.  Millions died in the Atlantic slave trade too, and many were murdered in the political fallout from that too.  And although black and white minstrel shows didn’t directly cause the deaths, they helped to fuel the racism that facilitated them. 

Sometimes enlightened governments come along, and there is a culture of tolerance.  But when the wheels start falling off, people start looking for scapegoats.  And the reason why it keeps happening again, and again, to the same groups of people, is because society starts to believe “All that hatred was a long time ago – it could never happen again”.  It’s like financial crises.  Just when everyone is sure they could never happen again, they happen again.

Sadly, someone with an ethnicity, or a sexuality, or a disability, that has traditionally been made a political scapegoat always needs be cautious for those little signs that society is once again turning against them.  Like it has for long long periods of this country’s history. 

We in the UK live in a very different political climate to our ancestors.  There are many more ethnicities living in this country than there were even 100 years ago, and for simple practical reasons apart from moral ones, we need to try to create a culture in which we can all get along.


And what I worry about is that if we’re not prepared to concede that we just don’t do black-face anymore, on grounds of it being bad taste rather than racially inflammatory, then traditions like Border Morris will just become less and less relevant.  Anyone sympathetic to the offence it causes will just avoid it.

So let me try to boil it down to its simplest ingredients.

Do you want to be right, or do you want to be kind?

I believe that if you acknowledge the history of black-face in Morris but stop actually practicing it, you can do both.

[Update 27/02/17: I’m actually going to pull a link out of the comments, because I think it’s probably a lot more insightful than all the waffle I wrote above.  It’s on Page 6 of this PDF, and it’s an article called ‘To Black Up or Not To Black Up: a personal journey by Chloe Metcalfe”]

3 thoughts on “Chapter 69: Morris dancing. Borderline racist?

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