May the time be right to move our bank holiday?

Should the May Day bank holiday be scrapped and replaced with patron saint holidays instead? Mark Andrews investigates.

Maypole dancing is a popular May Day tradition
Maypole dancing is a popular May Day tradition

Sheila Jack cut a lonely figure almost exactly 40 years ago as she sat on the steps of her junior school, clutching a handful of books.

On May 1, 1978, Collingwood Junior School was closed for Britain's first May Day bank holiday, recently created by Jim Callaghan's Labour government to coincide with International Workers' Day. But the teacher from Telford had no intention of taking the day off.

Sheila Jack held her right-to-work protest on the steps of Collingwood Junior School, Wolverhampton

"My protest is against May Day being used as a public holiday, because its connections are either pagan or political," she said as she began marking books outside the school in Wolverhampton.

It is exactly 40 years since Callaghan made May Day a national holiday, and it has been the subject of debate ever since. In 2011, David Cameron's coalition government looked at moving the bank holiday to the autumn in 2011, but met with fierce resistance from the trade unions.

And now the present Labour leader has thrown the issue of when our bank holidays should fall back into the spotlight with his call for four new UK-wide public holidays to mark the patron saints of the four home nations, although it is fair to say he is about as likely to abandon the May Day bank holiday as he is to join his local hunt.

May Day bank holiday was introduced in 1978 by then prime minister Jim Callaghan

This would mean two days off in March to mark St David's Day and St Patrick's Day, a day off roundabout April 23 for St George's Day, and a day to mark St Andrew's Day which will fall either at the end of November or the start of December.

Our poll of Shropshire Star readers shows that opinions about the May Day bank holiday are as divided as ever ­– when asked if the holiday should be moved to St George's Day in England, or St David's Day in Wales, it proved to be a fairly even split, with a slight majority in favour of a change.

At the moment, there are eight UK bank holidays: Christmas Day, Boxing Day and New Year's Day in the winter, Good Friday, Easter Monday, May Day, and Whit Monday around the spring, plus an extra bank holiday at the end of August.

Jeremy Corbyn has proposed four extra bank holidays

When David Cameron proposed moving May Day, he argued that the four spring bank holidays were too close together, potentially being crowded within a five-week period, depending on when Easter fell. It was proposed that it should be replaced with a new bank holiday in the autumn, possibly to mark Trafalgar Day on October 21.

John Penrose, a minister at the time, said it would benefit the tourism industry, but the plan failed to gain traction, with fierce opposition from the trade union movement.

Mr Cameron insisted there were no political motives behind the proposed move, but it is fair to say that Brendan Barber, the TUC general secretary at the time, was unconvinced.

He said: "A few Tory backwoodsmen have a bee in their bonnet about the May Day bank holiday because of its association with international labour day. In fact May Day is a traditional British celebration dating back to the fourth century."

Children traditionally danced around the May Pole on this Bank Holiday

It is certainly true that May Day is a tradition going back centuries, beginning with the Roman festival of Floralia, celebrating the goddess of flowers, and evolving into a pagan festival marked with morris and maypole dancing in ancient England. However, the idea of marking it with a public holiday did not really catch on until the 20th century, with Britain one of the last countries to adopt it.

And the story behind it probably explains why the subject is so politically charged.

International Workers Day, or Labour Day as it is sometimes known, traces its roots back to an incident in Chicago in 1886, which is either described as the Haymarket Riot or the Haymarket Massacre, depending on your perspective.

The incident began as a strike and public demonstration demanding an eight-hour working day which started peacefully enough, but began to turn ugly when the police attempted to disperse the crowds. When an unidentified protester threw a bomb, police responded by opening fire.

International Workers Day, or Labour Day as it is sometimes known, traces its roots back to an incident at Haymarket in Chicago in 1886

It is not known how many were killed or injured during the stand-off, but those considered to be the ringleaders felt the full force of the law. Four anarchist campaigners – August Spies, George Engel, Adolph Fischer and Albert Parsons – were charged with conspiracy, and were hanged for the crimes.

The event, and the alleged miscarriage of justice in respect of the hangings, became a cause celebre among socialist groups, anarchists and trade unionists across the world. In 1904 The International Socialist Congress, meeting in Amsterdam, called on "all social democratic party organisations and trade unions of all countries to demonstrate energetically on May 1 for the legal establishment of the eight-hour day."

Following the 1917 revolution, the newly formed Soviet Union quickly embraced May Day as a national holiday celebrating workers' power, and it became renowned for huge set-piece displays in Moscow's Red Square. Nazi Germany was also quick to latch on to this popular mood, declaring it a national holiday on taking power in 1933, although the celebrations were strictly regulated. Ironically, the United States, where the original protest took place, never really embraced May Day, celebrating its own Labor Day on the first Monday of September.

Should May Day be replaced by St George's Day on the bank holiday calendar?

So is it time to reform our bank holidays? Of course, Mr Corbyn's proposal for an extra four bank holidays across the UK was always going to be a popular move – who is going to object to an extra four days paid leave? However, workers might be decidedly less keen if their employers simply deduct the extra days from their holiday entitlement, meaning they simply have less choice about when to take their leave.

As for whether the May Day holiday should move, people's opinions probably fluctuate wildly depending on the one thing the politicians cannot control. The Great British weather.

Patron saints day ‘would be favoured’

Everyone welcomes a day off – but of all the bank holidays, May Day is one that divides opinion.

A Shropshire Star poll today reveals a small majority in favour of scrapping today’s national holiday in favour of a day to mark each of the home countries’ patron saint days. Of those questioned, 52 per cent voted to swap bank holidays.

A patron saint day is a promise made by Jeremy Corbyn if he were to become prime minister – although he intends to give it as an extra day and to keep May Day intact. He says an extra day off would be a suitable reward for workers after after “years of damaging Tory austerity”.

Although Mr Corbyn’s suggestion has been used as a barbed attack on the Tories, it feeds into a debate that continues to be had across the country.

In Mid Wales, county councillor Elwyn Vaughan has long campaigned for St David’s Day to be made a bank holiday, and tabled an idea that went before the Powys County Council ‘s full council.

However the idea was shunned due to an estimated cost of £600,000 for the county.

Councillor Vaughan was disappointed with how it was received, and now has backed the idea to replace May Day with St David’s Day, with England, Scotland and Northern Ireland alsobeing given their equivalent days off.

He said: “Personally I would say yes it is a good idea.

“Many in Wales feel that we should have St David’s Day as a bank holiday and if the way to enable that to happen is to change the May day holiday then so be it.

“Likewise many would say that having Easter, May Day and Whitsun holidays so close to each other is counter productive, and having the holiday on our national day would give it a sense of purpose, pride and sense of place.”

It is 40 years since the first May Day break. Governments have considered changing it in the past, arguing that four of the UK’s eight bank holidays are squeezed into a few weeks from Easter to Whitsun.

Some have also voiced opposition to the political connotations associated with May Day.

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