Sheela-na-Gig aka Jeanne Rathbone

History, heritage and tradition in British Politics Battersea Labour Party members interviews

Emily Robinson came to Battersea to interview some of us Labour Party members for her book History, Heritage and Tradition in Contemporary British Politics. Emily is an Advance Research Fellow in the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Nottingham. We attended a launch of her book at the House of Lords on Tuesday 11th September. It was chaired by Mary Riddell of the Daily Telegraph in discussion with Emily, Jon Cruddas Labour MP and Martin Wright of King’s College London.

History, Heritage and Tradition in Contemporary British Politics explores the use of the past in modern British politics. It examines party political perspectives on British history and the historical process and also looks at the ways in which memory is instituted within the parties in practice, through archives, written histories, and commemorations. It focuses in particular on a number of explicit negotiations over historical narratives: the creation of the National Curriculum for History, Conservative attempts to re-assess their historical role in 1997, the assertion of a “lost” social democratic tradition by the SDP and New Labour and the collapse of the Communist Party of Great Britain’s narrative memory in 1988-91. This book shows how history, heritage, and tradition are used to present parliamentary politics as intrinsically “historic” and suggests that the disappearance of active political pasts leaves contemporary politicians unable to speak of radically different futures.

Here is a review of the book by Krista Cowman Professor of History in the School of Humanities, University of Lincoln.Book Review: History, Heritage and Tradition in Contemporary

Here is the section on her interview with myself and Dave and Joan. Charlotte Despard who stood as the Labour candidate in the 1918 general election and her biography was entitled An Unhusbanded Life: Charlotte Despard: suffragette, socialist, and Sinn Feiner by Andro Linklater, Hutchinson, London, 1980.

Her election agent was Caroline Ganley who went on to become the MP for Battersea South 1945 to 1951. Political Women – Caroline Selina Ganley

Lily Harrison MBE was Lady Mayor of Battersea in Coronation year and she knew Caroline who had gone on to become a labour Councillor.

Here is the excerpt from Emily’s pertaining to her interview with us about Battersea Labour history and our membership of the Battersea Labour Singers.

Throughout Battersea Labour party’s centenary celebrations, it was frequently emphasised that one of the current members had known one of the luminaries from the mid-years of the party who, in turn, had known one of its founding members. The importance of this direct line of personal (and, crucially, female) continuity was later stressed in interviews:

 I think particularly the feminist thing is kind of important. The Charlotte Despard, Caroline Ganley tradition. It’s the fact that we have a member here, Lily Harrison, who knew Caroline Ganley and Caroline Ganley knew Charlotte Despard and that matters to me.[i]

So, to have this connection, just through three women to one born in 1845, I think that’s tremendous.[ii]

Local member Joan O’Pray described how the Battersea Party’s Women’s Section had been strongly influenced by its research into radical women from the past. Yet, whilst women such as Aphra Behn were an inspiration, it was Charlotte Despard, with her history in Battersea, who became their figurehead.[iii] The legacy of Battersea’s Women’s Section provides an important reminder that the history of a party cannot be fixed into a single narrative. The campaigns of the 1970s and 1980s, particularly those associated with the Women’s Section, did not receive as much attention in the Battersea Centenary DVD as members such as O’Pray, Jeanne Rathbone and Anne Reyersbach might have liked. Moreover, Rathbone expressed disquiet about the focus placed on John Burns; she felt that the reverence given to such ‘male working-class heroes’ contributed to an overly masculine style of history which ‘ignore[d] the fact that women were the first subject class’. [iv]

 It is clear that political songs can take on radically different meanings, not only for singers/listeners of different political persuasions but also in terms of generation and historical-mindset. An interview conducted with Jeanne and Dave Rathbone in Battersea is instructive here. Jeanne had been involved with the centenary celebrations of both 2006 and 2008 and had carried out her own research into local history, particularly the life of Charlotte Despard, with whom she strongly identifies. Jeanne is passionate about political heritage and about the ‘resonance’ of songs, places and figures across generations. Her husband, Dave, is also a Labour party activist and core member of the Battersea Labour party choir, which sings socialist songs at party functions, including the national party’s annual conference. However it became clear during the interview that they did not approach the songs in exactly the same way. The first sign of disagreement came when Dave said that the ‘March of the Women’ (brought up by Jeanne) was ‘not really a socialist song’ but ‘got incorporated’ into the repertoire. This upset Jeanne, a committed feminist, who responded that anti-war songs might not be strictly socialist either but ‘They’re all about … caring and the movement and our history.’ It later transpired that Dave was more concerned with the experience of singing itself, rather than the content of the song and despite being a humanist sings religious music in a choral society on the grounds that ‘you don’t have to sign a thing saying that you believe in it to be moved by Mozart’s Requiem.’ Only when really pressed, did Dave admit to any level of connection with the historical element of the songs, and even then somewhat unconvincingly:


I think it is quite intriguing to go to Conference because it’s always been sung there, even though people didn’t always know the words of the ‘Red Flag’… Yeah, there is a historical sense of it all running through there, yeah, I agree. I like singing anyway, just go along and have a good sing.

He did not, however, respond to Jeanne’s prompting about the joy of ‘reclaiming’ Holst’s ‘I Vow to the My Country’ through a new version with lyrics by Billy Bragg, saying only that it had been good fun singing the song. Dave’s perspective reminds us that performative memory is not always what it seems. Great play has been made of the continuance of singing the ‘Red Flag’ at Labour party conferences, despite Blair’s supposed discomfort.[v] At the 2006 centenary conference Ann Clwyd remarked (perhaps slightly playfully) that the photograph of the PLP in the House of Commons had been a ‘very moving occasion for all of us’ which had ‘ended with everybody – including the Prime Minister – singing the Red Flag!’[vi] But it is difficult to penetrate the many layers of meaning which come into play here. For many party members, such as Jeanne Rathbone, the ‘Red Flag’ remains a powerful statement of political commitment and also carries important historical overtones. Others may take the politics but leave the history, and others still might see it as a playful piece of nostalgia, emptied of real political meaning. Overarching all of these different positions remains the simple, emotive aspect of communal singing, a joyful experience through which solidarity can be experienced as an immediate physical sensation (even if that doesn’t always translate into an ongoing political commitment).[vii]

We were amused about her reporting the spat between Dave and me about the March of the Women which is such a favourite song of mine.  The March of the Women – YouTube


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