At the weekend the Prime Minister risked the wrath of the politically correct left by posing with some traditional Morris Dancers who had ‘blacked up’ for the Banbury Folk Festival near his constituency. However, anyone criticising David Cameron will be coming up against a important historic reason for the practise: so beggars could not be recognised.
In the 16th century out of work labourers would beg on the streets, but they applied soot to their faces in order to avoid being recognised by the authorities. This was because begging was illegal at the time, and the criminal justice system was not as lenient as it is today. Punishments for any crimes in the 16th Century, including begging, could be as severe as flogging, prison or even death.
It is perhaps understandable therefore that anyone desperate enough to risk these punishments, to feed themselves or their families, would have little concern for how unpolitically correct it might appear today. Martin de Vine, founder and Squire of the Foxs Morris dancers, told the Daily Telegraph: “David Cameron was having a coffee and we saw him and just asked if he would have a picture taken.
“We dance in the style of Border Morris, and we black our faces because farm labourers who were out of work in the winter months would go around begging, performing a dance in return for money.
“They blacked their faces with soot because it was illegal to beg and they didn’t want to be recognised. It was a disguise, in the same way that the leader of the troupe wears a top hat and is called the squire to take the mickey out of the local squire.
“It’s not racist and offence is never taken. People from other cultural backgrounds don’t see it as that at all. We have had an Arab person dancing with us in the past – it’s not seen as racist.”
Morris Dancers are considered very traditionally English and their performances are becoming increasingly popular as the country recognises it needs to remember its own unique identity. The Prime Minister was holding his daughter Florence when the photo was taken.