The Null Device

Tories for Billy Bragg

Music critic John Harris looks at the curious phenomenon of today's Tory politicians proclaiming their fandom of vehemently anti-Thatcherite music from the 1980s, including The Smiths, The Jam and even bolshy Billy Bragg:
He praises the Smiths for their "brilliant" lyrics; while he was at Eton, he says the music of the Jam "meant a lot"; his initial shortlist for Desert Island Discs included Kirsty MacColl's version of A New England, written by Billy Bragg. At one time or another, all of them were leaders of a subculture that pitted a good deal of British rock music against the party Cameron now leads, but he swats away that incongruity with the same blithe confidence he has used to remarket the Tories as zealous environmentalists and friends of the poor. "I don't see why the left should be the only ones allowed to listen to protest songs," he says, and that seems to be that.
Surely there are right-wing protest songs as well. The Beatles' Taxman, for example, or perhaps something by Bryan Ferry.
In the wake of the IRA attack on the 1984 Conservative party conference, for example, Morrissey rather regrettably claimed that "the sorrow of the Brighton bombing is that Thatcher is still alive". By way of pointing up his lack of remorse, his first solo album, Viva Hate, featured a particularly pointed composition entitled Margaret on the Guillotine, which ran thus: "Kind people have a wonderful dream/Margaret on the guillotine/Because people like you/Make me feel so tired/When will you die?" The song has been endlessly mentioned by those who have been querying Cameron's attachment to the Smiths, but to no avail. Just lately, he was once again presented with the words during a Guardian webchat, but batted them away with a glib flourish: "The lyrics - even the ones I disagree with - are great, and often amusing."
On this score, my favourite story concerns the Cameroonian Tory MP Ed Vaizey, who recently appeared on Michael Portillo's BBC4 Thatcher documentary, The Lady's not for Spurning, talking about the Birmingham-based 80s band the Beat, whom he claims to have "adored", despite being an "ardent Thatcherite". "They had a song called Stand Down Margaret," he marvelled, before telling Portillo he assumed that everyone in Britain admired Mrs Thatcher in much the same awestruck terms as he did, so when it came to the song's target, the penny never really dropped. "I couldn't work out what they had against Princess Margaret," he said. D'oh!
The article also has an amusing anecdote about David Cameron trying to have his photo taken outside the Salford Lads' Club (where The Smiths were photographed in 1986, while the Tories were last in power and Salford had 80% youth unemployment), and being thwarted by Labour activists

Which is more evidence supporting the argument that the countercultural underground music of the 1980s has finally completed its decay into the innocuous kitsch of "heritage rock", spent of its vitriol and now merely acoustic wallpaper? And all this with neither the original musicians nor, indeed, Margaret Thatcher being dead.

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