John Morton could be viewed as the first modern leader of the Musicians’ Union. Coming to office in 1970, he was the first to come from a dance band background and the first to be comfortable with the increasing proportion of non-orchestral musicians in the Union.
Beyond the organisational qualities which had characterised his predecessors, Morton’s interest in law (particularly intellectual property law) has had a lasting influence on the Union long beyond his retirement in 1990.
Born into poverty in Wolverhampton in 1925, he took piano lessons as a child, but left school at 14 to become an apprentice printer, before discovering swing music and joining a band which was part of a the thriving dance band scene of the 1940s. He joined the Musicians’ Union in 1946 and quickly became active becoming Birmingham Branch Secretary and a member of the Executive Committee.
During this period he was at the forefront of the Union’s boycott of the Scala Ballroom in Wolverhampton during its ‘colour bar’ as well as becoming involved in negotiations with the film and music industries as well as the broadcasters. Leaving the full-time employ of the Union (though he remained on the EC) to teach industrial relations at Solihull College, before Hardie Ratcliffe he suggested he stand for General Secretary on his retrial.
Winning on the first ballot, he had a number of issues to address, notably the imminent arrival of commercial / Independent Local Radio, which the MU initially opposed before entering agreements with the companies involved. Twenty years later, when reflecting on his period in office, Morton highlighted how many of the issues present at the start of his term were the same as at the end – highlighting broadcasting, technology, economics and (trade union) law as being the recurring themes:
“There is a sense of deja vu about many current events. As I write, the BBC, has just announced (without observing such modest courtesies as prior notification to the Union or the musicians concerned) the closure of an orchestra. The House of Commons is designing a bill designed to radically change British broadcasting. Also before Parliament is legislation to further limit Trade Union rights in this country through the misleadingly titled Employment Bill. On the economic front. . continued economic difficulties can be expected. On the technological front, satellite television will completely alter the home entertainment market.” (18)
Morton engaged with the detail of each of these in a way that was not always the case with his predecessors. A profile in The Observer in 1980 saw him described by one of the Union officials as “The Great Thinker,” and Morton’s keen interest in the process of law saw him representing the Union in complex negotiations and hearing both at home (the Performing Right Tribunal) and abroad (in his role as President of the International Federation of Musicians) as the former fought with the Independent Radio Owners and the latter grappled with the implications of the Rome Convention.
The 1980s started with the BBC strike which with its threat to the Prom concerts raised the public profile of the Union as it fought against the BBC’s decision to close five of its orchestras and make 172 musicians redundant as part of a round of cost cutting. The strike lasted for two months and attracted support from high profile musicians and television personalities, and resulted in a compromise which saved three of the orchestras, with various sweeteners for both the BBC (additional broadcast hours) and the soon to be redundant musicians (freelance contracts, hardship funds).
In many respects, it marked a triumph for the Union. The Musician hailed it as “the stoke that changed history” (Autumn 1980: 7) while Morton offered a slightly less hyperbolic assessment of its outcome:
“No one will claim the final settlement is perfect, but it only has to be compared with the BBCs original proposals to see that the effort was worthwhile.” (ibid)
Throughout the period Morton played an important part in the TUC, being elected to its General Council in 1974 and remaining there until he was deposed in 1985. He returned in 1986, topping the ballot with 1.2 million votes. He described himself as “not a significant individual in Labour Party politics” (Silverlight, 1980: 4) but managed to attract support from all sides of the ideological divide. Regarded as being to the left of the party when he joined the General Council, his re-election twelve years later saw him described as “a victory for the moderates” in The Times, while The Guardian viewed him as “a consensus man, who must have reached some understanding with the right to win this year” (3rd September 1986: 5).
Although Morton made the case against Britain’s membership of the European Economic Community throughout the seventies, his commitment to international issues made him the first genuinely outward looking General Secretary. His period in charge saw copyright being placed increasingly at the centre of the Union’s agenda, both nationally and internationally. As well as being president of the FIM between 1973 and 2002, he also contributed to the work of both the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) and the International Labour Organisation (ILO) at various times and worked with Musicians’ Unions in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe (particularly post 1989) as well as those in Spain after the death of Franco.
Morton told Dave Laing (2011) that his work with the ILO (“we got trade unionists out of prison”) was one of his main achievements in office, along with the modernisation of the MU and campaigning for performers’ rights.
He has continued to be involved in many of these issues since his retirement, and remains President Emeritus of the FIM.
John Morton CBE, Interview by Dave Laing, 5 April 2011
Silverlight, J. (1980) Pianist Who Calls The Tune for The Musicians. The Observer, 27 July 1980, p.4
Uncredited (1986) Right foot Forward, The Guardian, 3 September 1986, p.5
Uncredited (1980) The Strike That Changed History. The Musician, Autumn p.7