David Cameron has been at it again. After it was announced that Kingston upon Hull will be the UK’s next City of Culture, he used Prime Minister’s Questions to remind us that ‘of course in terms of popular music Hull has a fantastic record, I remember some years ago that great Housemartins’ album which was London 0 Hull 4’.
The Housemartins were committed socialists: the sleeve for this album contains the message ‘Take Marx – Take Hope’. Not surprisingly, Cameron’s endorsement has annoyed the band’s lead singer. Paul Heaton has stated, ‘apparently David Cameron likes London 0 Hull 4. Which part of the attack on his policies and rich friends did he like best?’ Heaton is a landlord and has warned the Tories: ‘when I took over my pub in Salford, the first people I barred were Cameron and Osborne. That ban still stands.’
Our Tory prime minister has a history of upsetting left wing bands. It began with him selecting ‘This Charming Man’ by the Smiths as one of his Desert Island Discs in 2006. Johnny Marr, the band’s guitarist, was horrified. He tweeted, ‘Stop saying that you like The Smiths, no you don’t. I forbid you to like it’. His old partner Morrissey added, ‘I would like to, if I may, offer support to Johnny Marr. David Cameron hunts and shoots and kills stags – apparently for pleasure. It was not for such people that either “Meat is Murder” or “The Queen is Dead” were recorded; in fact, they were made as a reaction against such violence’. It should not be forgotten, though, that Morrissey sometimes endorsed violence. In the late 1980s he recorded the song ‘Margaret on the Guillotine’.
In 2008, Cameron was interviewed for the radio documentary The Jam Generation, which featured people who were young in the 1970s reminiscing about Paul Weller’s band. Cameron spoke about ‘The Eton Rifles’, his favourite song by the group: ‘I was one, in the corps. It meant a lot, some of those early Jam albums we used to listen to’. Weller wrote the song after seeing right-to-work marchers jeered at by Eton schoolboys. His response to Cameron’s patronage was much the same as Heaton’s: ‘Which part of it didn’t he get? It wasn’t intended as a fucking jolly drinking song for the cadet corps’.
The difficulty for all of these bands is that Cameron is not being an idiot. In the first instance, he does seem to have a genuine appreciation for the music. He avoids the pitfalls of name-dropping bands that he knows nothing about. The Labour leader Gordon Brown, in contrast, was clearly bidding for popular acceptance when he professed his love for the Arctic Monkeys. His successor, Ed Milliband, has avoided this trap, but only at the expense of revealing that he is one of the few living souls who is unmoved by music. He recently appeared on Desert Island Discs himself, coming up with a list that Norman Lebrecht described as ‘shocking not for its bad taste but for its numbing banality’ (the Housemartins were amongst his prescribed choices).
Cameron is also being deliberately provocative. He’s now promoted left wing bands too often for it to be a coincidence: he’s taunting these groups. I hate to admit it, but there’s something grudgingly likeable about this, not least because, again, it reveals that he does know this repertoire.
Far more insidious, though, is the fact that he is trying to reclaim it for the right. Cameron has displayed his knowledge of the indie bands of his university years. It appears that he knows the cultural theory of this time as well. London 0 Hull 4 was released in 1986, the same year that Stuart Hall was expounding his theories about articulation. Hall argued that, ‘An articulation is the form of connection that can make a unity of two different elements, under certain conditions’, pointing out that, ‘the so-called “unity’”of a discourse is really the articulation of different, distinct elements which can be re-articulated in different ways because they have no necessary “belongingness”’. What Hall is saying, basically, is that meanings can be overturned.
Despite the complaints of Heaton, Marr, Morrissey and Weller, there is no way that their music permanently belongs to the left. It can be re-articulated for right wing causes. Cameron knows this, too. He has stated, ‘I don’t see why the left should be the only ones allowed to listen to protest songs’. There is a horrible smugness in the Tory cabinet. These old Eton Boys relish their ability to make the poor swallow austerity measures and the rich dance to socialist pop. Let’s hope they remember the title of the second Housemartins’ album: The People Who Grinned Themselves to Death.