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Colin Barker

Banner Bright

(July 1973)

From International Socialism (1st series), No. 60, July 1973, p. 25.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg, with thanks to Paul Blackledge.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Banner Bright
John Gorman, with an introduction by Gwyn A. Williams
Allen Lane, £5.00

This handsomely produced book should certainly be ordered for every public library. It details particular tradition of trade-union banners, tradition now largely dead: those huge, silk tasselled oil paintings on poles that have graced union galas and parades for over a century. Not many of these banners are made today, but at one period at the end of the 1880s – after the great dock strike of 1889, – the manufacturers were rushing them out at more than one a day. The book ably introduced by Gwyn Williams details the banners and their makers, though perhaps a little too uncritically. They are so gorgeous, these great banners, that one cannot help asking what they were for.

At their peak, the banners symbolised the arrival of the unions in society. The slogans on the majority are exceptionally conservative: ‘Defence no Defiance’; ‘Let Brotherly Love Continue’; ‘We Provide for the Orphans of our Members’, etc. They celebrate with the view of a labour aristocracy and/or a workers’ bureaucracy within capitalism. The union offers itself to the public gaze as a respectable coffin club, highly moralistic, drawing on the sentimentalistic school of art characteristic of the late Victorian Sunday school. A minority of the banners express other aspirations: Lenin’s portrait looks out from the Follonsby and Chopwell Lodge banners (Durham miners); Southall ASLEF in 1921 showed a red-shirted worker booting aside the railway bosses beneath the statement ‘The Power of Unity Breaks Down the Barriers of Capitalism’; a number include a sword-fight scene and ‘He That Would Be Free Must Strike the Blow’; and there are quotations from the Communist Manifesto, etc.

But the very gorgeousness of the banners creates a doubt – they’d cost £500 a piece today. Because these are handsome things (if not to everyone’s taste), they are not the movement’s fighting flags. A few have appeared, often at the cost of their destruction, on militant demonstrations. Generally they were reserved (today, sometimes, by the insurance companies!) for parades, outings, occasions. They are, as Gwyn Williams remarks, Labour’s cathedrals. There is another kind of banner that hardly finds a place here (Except for Tillett’s banner, used to organise the tea operatives in the 1880s, now sewn in as a proud back for a silk showpiece). The instant emblems, the battle flags, knocked up in an evening in a back kitchen, are missing.

On the 1963 unemployment demonstration, a stewards’ committee banner was draped over an entrance to the House of Commons, a symbol for socialists of the future. It was a white sheet, with black lettering, and could be replaced for a few bob. Labour’s cathedrals are crumbling away. If they are to be made again, and hoisted in their hundreds, the ground will first be cleared by the home-made flags of struggle.

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Last updated: 23.9.2013