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Morris Dancers performing in Trafalgar Square, 2003

Celebrating 20 years since Morris dancing was rescued from the Licensing Act

James Merryclough digs into the origins of the JMO Day of Dance, reading countless parliamentary bills so you don't have to.

This weekend (Saturday, October 21st) will see hundreds of Morris dancers gather in Trafalgar Square to mark 20 years since Morris achieved an exemption from potentially disastrous new legislation.

The Licensing Act (2003) was designed to simplify licensing laws for selling alcohol and providing entertainment, as well as allowing 24-hour opening for the first time. In all, it replaced six separate licences (for alcohol, public entertainment, cinemas, theatres, late-night refreshment houses, and night cafés) and replaced it with a single process and resulting licence per premises, with different tick-boxes depending on what activity was taking place.

All sounds pretty logical and bureaucracy-busting…


However, the Act got rid of the antecedent ‘two-in-a-bar’ exemption for live music, which had previously meant that as long as no more than two musicians performed together, a pub did not require a separate entertainment licence. This effectively extended the need to obtain an alcohol licence, plus an additional music allowance to all venues, no matter how tiny, if they wished to provide any form of entertainment. 

It is hardly any wonder that musicians across the land, from Morris dancers to metal bands, are united in opposing the Bill.

John Whittingdale MP, House of Commons Debate, 16 June 2003

At the time, there was huge and legitimate concern that this would, “halve the number of concerts taking place in the UK,” due to real or perceived additional cost or processing, and a petition containing tens of thousands of signatures was presented to Parliament by the Musicians’ Union (MU).

Although initially opposing the Act, the MU switched to supporting it in 2005 in order to work with the Government in measuring its impact. By 2007 (two years after the Act came into force), a report by The Live Music Forum, an independent body set up by Government and involving the MU, said the new licensing law was “damaging small gigs”, although overall it, “has had a neutral effect on the UK’s live music scene”

Another notable form of entertainment that almost got caught up in the legislation was Punch & Judy shows, leading to this wonderful statement in Hansard:

I cannot understand why the Minister wants to go down in history as the man who wanted to regulate Punch and Judy shows.”

Andrew Turner MP, House of Commons Debate, 16 June 2003

Of course, whatever was going to apply to artist and band performances would also apply to folk dance, sessions and mummers. So how did folkies fare?

Morris dancing and the Act

For anyone familiar with Morris dancing, you will be aware that pubs are a pretty important part of the hobby. Yes, many Morris teams enjoy a beer or two, but drinking aside, pubs are also often practice venues and socialising spaces where team bonding and spirit is born. Pubs are often the centre of their community, which means their resident Morris teams also become part of that community, aiding recruitment and general understanding of the hobby. 

The Morris Clown, Bampton

Most importantly, pubs are probably the main performance spaces for Morris sides and the number one place for the general public to interact with the tradition. Whether it’s a gentle summer’s evening of Cotswold in a beer garden or a late-night surprise visit by a rapper team to a city-centre bar, the spontaneous and often random nature of encounters with a Morris or other dance team is what sticks in peoples’ minds (and ends up on social media).

Pubs are also central to so much other folk culture, from hosting formal folk clubs and paid gigs, to informal music or song sessions, all of which would have become licensable activity under the Act as it was originally proposed. 

Enter the JMO

Obviously, the possibility that Morris (and other folk activities) would become a licensable activity was pretty worrying for the dance and wider folk community.

Thankfully, both EFDSS and the Morris umbrella organisations got organised and began lobbying. For the first time, the Morris Ring, Morris Federation and Open Morris came together as a loose organisation called the Joint Morris Organisations (JMO). Having started out to lobby Government on this specific issue, the JMO has since become a forum through which all three organisations discuss and provide support on matters that affect all Morris teams, such as public liability insurance and support with educational projects.

That said, on 16th June 2003, Malcolm Moss, Member for Cambridgeshire North East, had cause to note in a debate of the Bill in the House of Commons that:

“The society [EFDSS] says that it was grateful to the Minister for the meeting on 3 April, and that he had opened the door to further discussions between the society and the Department, but in reality it remained worried by the legislation and had not received adequate answers to the specific questions that it had raised… EFDSS first submitted its concerns to the Department in February; so far, it has had no answer.”

A music session? Call the rozzers!

Parliamentary ping-pong

Now, I consider myself fairly politically literate, but I’m sure I’m not alone in that I don’t follow the minutiae of every debate and amendment proposal of every piece of legislation making its way through Parliament. Having combed through various pieces of Hansard, albeit from a distance of 20 years, what followed seems to be best described as parliamentary ping-pong, as the Bill was debated, amendments were added, removed again, discussed at committee, sent back to the Lords and concessions made. 

It’s been fascinating to look through some of the debates and discussions that formed the Act. What is clear is that there were a number of members in both Houses of Parliament who championed the cause of Morris in particular and had been well briefed by the JMO. For example, here’s Malcolm Moss again at the same debate on 16th June 2003:

“Folk art activity is extremely widespread, despite attracting relatively little attention in the mainstream arts listings and media. There are around 750 folk dance teams nationwide, including Morris, clog, molly, longsword, rapper, Appalachian and other international styles. These teams involve more than 14,000 dancers, musicians and singers, and together they provide at least 10,500 folk dance events for at least 500,000 members of the public each year.

“There are at least 400 folk song, music and dance clubs in England. A minimum of 9,000 regular folk music sessions and singarounds take place in England each year, though hundreds more spontaneous, one-off events also occur. The greatest number of these folk arts activities are small-scale and occur within local communities, outside the mainstream of arts planning and provision. On a community level, they are almost entirely voluntary and therefore highly sensitive to legislation, particularly when it carries cost implications.”

Why Morris dancers carry chalk.

This last point, as anyone organising larger Morris events will tell you, is particularly insightful. Having just been asked for risk assessment, liability insurance and booking fees to dance in public spaces in order to put on the SDU Longsword Competition in Sheffield, it can feel like a lot of hassle for something we do for fun.

Lord Redesdale also represented Morris in the House of Lords:

“I have had a large number of representations from the folk dance world. I would be very grateful if the Minister could give some indication over how temporary event notices will work in relation to Morris men [that’s Morris dancers, thank you m’lord] so that they may he reassured in carrying on their activities.”


Only two things are absolutely forbidden – incest and Morris dancing.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

Thankfully, during the debates and concessions, an exemption was added for Morris and other incidental and spontaneous performances. In the same debate as Lord Redesdale made his representation above, Lord McIntosh of Haringey responded on behalf of the Government that:

“I can say something nice to the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, about Morris dancing. He will have heard, as I have, the moral law that only two things are absolutely forbidden – incest and Morris dancing. I want to make it clear that when morris dancers arrive at a pub unannounced – for example, on the way back from another event – and have a pint in a pub garden, and start dancing, there is no need for an authorisation of this kind. They would not be providing entertainment that fell within the definition of the provision of regulated entertainment. No genuinely spontaneous activity – I say this to the noble Lord, Lord Colwyn, as well- whether it is singing, dancing, or playing a musical instrument, will be caught by the Bill.”

I’m almost prepared to forgive him his use of the “incest and Morris dancing” quote.

So, when the Licensing Act (2003) eventually became law in 2005, it contained exemptions for:

  • Morris dancing (or similar)
  • Incidental music – the performance of live music or the playing of recorded music if it is incidental to some other activity
  • A spontaneous performance of music, singing or dancing

Further deregulation over the years has meant that there is now no requirement for a licence for any live, unamplified music, such as folk sessions or gigs. 


To celebrate the exemption, the victorious Joint Morris Organisations decided to hold its first-ever combined day of dance. On 2nd November 2003, over 50 teams from around the country and across the three umbrella organisations danced in London with a massed dance in Trafalgar Square. As far as I can tell from the pictures I’ve been sent, a jolly time was had by all, despite the atrocious weather.

The event birthed the concept of a JMO day of dance, which is still held annually – 2024 will be in Newark

This year there have also been special regional days of dance over the last few weeks, held in Belper, Norwich, Chester, Bath and Newcastle.

These will culminate this weekend (Saturday 21st October) with another event in London to mark 20 years since the Licensing Act exemption was achieved, when 40 teams will again provide a massed spectacle of Morris in Trafalgar Square.

For full event timings and a list of the teams attending, visit the Morris Federation website.