Long live our beloved May Day

Click to follow
The Independent Online
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.