Ratcliffe was born in Liverpool in 1906 – the year in which the Labour Representation Committee formally became the Labour Party. As a child he learned to play both saxophone and flute, joining the Union at the age of 17, by which time he was working in theatre orchestras around the country, though he spent an extended period of time in Glasgow. Taking his father’s enthusiasm for trade unionism, he was instrumental in setting up six branches of the Musicians’ Union and gradually found more of his time taken up by administration and stopped playing. He reflected on this in an interview with The Observer in 1971:
“Why does a priest abandon worldly pleasures to devote his life to the Church? There comes a point when you have to make a choice.”
With the Union having survived the talkies, recession and the mass unemployment of the 1930s, Ratcliffe became a full time official in 1937 and was elected General Secretary when Fred Dambman retired in 1948, defeating B.Newton-Brooke by 5561 votes to 3800.
Ratcliffe’s period in charge of the Union was one of growth – membership reached 30 000 for the first time in the early 1950s and employment for musicians in the post-War period was relatively plentiful, giving the Union considerable bargaining power when negotiating with the major employers.
Under his leadership, not only did the wages of musicians in the theatre orchestras and working for the BBC increase, but the Union tackled what it saw as the threat of recorded music, brokering deals with PPL and the BBC to ensure limited use of recorded music on radio and television. These were designed to protect employment for live musicians, and even when concessions were made to the BBC and ITV on these, Ratcliffe extracted concessions, most notably the setting up of the BBC Training Orchestra in 1964.
He also oversaw the end of the restrictions on visiting American musicians and successfully won a court action against the Scala Ballroom in Wolverhampton in 1958 after withdrawing musicians from the venue after it implemented a “colour bar” on non-whites entering the club. While Ratcliffe could be seen in the light of this (and the Union’s early and vehement opposition to apartheid regime in South Africa) as the first truly internationalist leader of the MU, he recognised after his retirement that there was some way to go in terms of achieving equality for women, ethnic minorities and pop musicians within the Union. In the same interview, he told The Observer:
“At the moment we don’t have many coloured players. I sometimes wonder if we did, if there might be a reluctance in the orchestras to accept them.”
“The Glasgow branch when I was young consisted of what they called the ‘straight’ musicians. I don’t know if this meant that all the others were crooked or something. When the jazz bands were developing, the members were apt to say ‘We don’t want these people in the Union, they’re not really musicians at all.’ But they came in during the Thirties, and the big show bands. More recently there was the same feeling about pop.”
Ratcliffe was also the last MU leader to pre-date pop music and his own tastes – as evidenced by his 1964 appearance on Desert Island Discs – was traditional and conservative. Although generally cautious in passing judgement, he was on occasion, dismissive of the merits of popular music, telling the Performing Rights Tribunal that “pop music bears as much resemblance to real music as bingo to higher mathematics.”
Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of Ratcliffe’s career as General Secretary was his sometime fractious relations with the Union’s Executive Committee. Indeed, he is the only General Secretary to have resigned from his post, given the EC six months’ notice of his intention to quit in August 1962. Like the strike of Union officials the previous year (when Ratcliffe and other staff had been on strike for three days over a pay grievance), this was eventually resolved and Ratcliffe stayed in post until his retirement at the age of 65.
At the time of his resignation, Ratcliffe explained that his disagreement with the EC was not over external but internal policy matters.
After retiring, Ratcliffe continued to be active in Union matters, not least in his role as (the first) President of the Federation of International Musicians. Ratcliffe died in 1975 at the age of 69, but perhaps his tenure as General Secretary is best remembered in his own words:
I can’t recall a spectacular failure or spectacular success. I’ve never gone looking for trouble. Quite enough of it comes to a Union official as it is, and trouble takes up more time than it is worth. I’ve been astonishingly unadventurous, I have, and the union has during my term of office.”
Ford, C. (1971) Leader of the Band, The Observer, August 13th, p.8