Desert Island Discs and Political Decline

Professed music taste is a pretty good rectal thermometer for judging politicians.* I’m sure everyone in Britain is still reeling, a decade later, from the moment when Gordon Brown claimed to be an Arctic Monkeys fan. He was subsequently unable to name any of their songs, and left us with only one coherent comment: ‘they are very loud’. Everyone called bullshit.

Thanks to the Desert Island Discs archive we have a long-running record of political figures from all sides acting similarly. Politicians tend to be the more intelligent, the more learned. Most of them have been educated in our country’s greatest universities. Yet increasingly they are lowering their standards — and we’re encouraging them.

david-cameronDavid Cameron, our Eton- and Oxford-education Prime Minister, claims to love the following: REM, The Killers, The Smiths, Radiohead, Benny Hill, Pink Floyd, and Bob Dylan (plus one lonely Mendelssohn track). ‘Dave’, as he insisted on being called, made his appearance on Desert Island Discs around the same time he went on The Johnathan Ross Show and was asked if he ever masturbated over Margaret Thatcher. It was a time at which, fresh from winning the Tory leadership, Dave was eagerly degrading himself with a kind of pandering populism. Composer Peter Maxwell Davies was enraged by his choices:

In any other European country, a politician who chose that sort of garbage would be laughed out of court. The anti-artistic stance of our leaders gets up my nose. Their main aim is to turn us all into unquestioning passive consumers who put money into the bosses’ pockets. That is now the purpose of education.

ed-miliband-sass-faceJeremy Corbyn has yet to make an appearance, but David Ed Miliband has. His choices are all popular music of one sort or another, with one ostensibly anti-apartheid-related track. We need not call forth suppressed memories about Ed’s various media embarrassments, but it’s safe to say that his music choices are nearly as cringe-worthy: Robbie Williams, A-ha –even Neil Diamond. The Edith Piaf and Paul Robeson are not awful choices, but nowhere in the list is there any indication of good taste and judgement.

Let’s go back to the beginning. The first two politicians to appear on Desert Island Discs were Labour’s Tom Driberg, an odd and once-popular leftie who was, incidentally, quite possibly a spy, and the Conservative Party’s Beverly Baxter, a man I know nothing about but from some cursory googling seemed to be quite all right. Both were interviewed during the war, in 1943, only a year after the programme’s creation.

Among Driberg’s choices were Palestrina, Mozart, and an unusual choice of James Joyce reading from his book Finnegan’s Wake, as well as a couple of popular songs. Baxter’s choices were indeed a touch more conservative — Wagner, Elgar, Strauss, etc. — but he also throws in a Louis Armstrong song. The choices seem believable for both politicians. They show good cultural taste while retaining a healthy attachment to some elements of popular culture. They are the kind of choices you would rightly expect well-educated politicians to make.

The cynic might say that they were simply adapting their choices to a different time, one that expected a certain gentility from its leaders. But so what? All this would mean is that the public expected its law-makers to be cultured and experienced. If only this were true today, then we wouldn’t have the likes of Donald Trump.

The modern politician defers to populist tastes. They are scared of any accusation of elitism. Conductor Antonio Pappano has said that politicians are even scared to show their faces at the opera. Instead, they withdraw what personalities they have, and unconvincingly opt for the most mass-market approved music their advisers can find.

It has created a curious situation where politicians attempts to seem normal have only resulted in greater hole-digging. They are scorned for being out of touch, but instead of trying to rectify this by mingling with the commoners, they engage in an embarrassing game of pretence, and everyone plays along.

Yet if anything the classes have only become more rigid. These well-educated politicians have climbed to the top rungs, only to kick down the ladder, all while pretending ever more so to be on the people’s side. But it’s not all their fault — we’re the ones who keep electing the buggers.

mayor_of_london_bo_1564736aWhich brings us onto Alexander ‘Boris’ de Pfeffel Johnson, a man with his finger irretrievably lodged in the wind. He tempered his choices in 2005 to cover all bases: a couple of poncy tracks, the Brahms and the Beethoven, to solidify his lovable toff image, but otherwise choosing mostly popular tracks, raging from his punkish side (The Clash) to his loose side (Booker T. and the MG’s). With his increasing television personality, most notably on Have I Got News For You, Boris had become adept even then at celebrity culture. I often wish their were a sign erected outside Westminster, similar to those in seaside towns warning of seagulls: Don’t Feed The Boris.

This is because we — and I use ‘we’ very loosely — encourage bad behaviour in politicians, with the perplexing mindset that they should be more like us. This denigration of elitism has created an obvious lowering of standards, as seen by the new predominance of unremarkable pop music over the artistic brilliance of Western civilisation. If we now think that, when stranded on a desert island, it is better to be stuck with a three-minute repetitive Smiths song than a Wagner opera, our culture has most certainly sunk. (And I say this even as a seasoned miserabilist rather partial to The Smiths’ Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now.)

This surely proves my point: one of David Davis pick’s was Pink’s Get the Party Started. Really. I quite like David Davis, and I must say I was embarrassed for him when I read his choices. But worse was poor old Nick Clegg. No doubt still euphoric after the brief spurt of popularity he received in the 2010 election campaign (including, I’m so very ashamed to say, from me), he threw in Prince, Bowie and — listen to this — Shakira’s ‘Waka Waka’ theme for the world cup (video below). Clegg also chose Radiohead, always a top choice among educated people who want a ‘sophisticated’ brand of rock. His advisers seemed, however, to permit him a bit of Schubert and Chopin.

Look at Michael Foot’s choices — the far-left chap so well respected for his political fights for the working classes — and it’s all ‘elitist’ classical music. Margaret Thatcher’s choices showed similarly good taste. Even into the 1980s we could expect our politicians to maintain high cultural standards. If I had to put a date on when things changed, it would be in 1997, with the election of ‘Tony’ Blair — as much a pretence as ‘Dave’ or ‘Boris’.

But never fear, I have a solution of sorts: a permanent vacation to a remote desert island for all guilty offenders. Any Etonian minister who claims his favourite artist is Kenya West must go. Any hip young thing in parliament who claims to adore Meghan Trainer must go. A purge is needed. These politicians must face the consequences of their words. If they claim to love Eminem, we should do a Mussolini — that is, exile them on some unremarkable island, but with the ‘luxury’ of their apparent favourite Eminem track as company. Let them suffer.

*The phrase is adapted from one by the late Christopher Hitchens, suggesting that he should carry ‘some sort of rectal thermometer, with which to test the rate at which I am becoming an old fart’