It’s hard to imagine anyone in Westminster listening to music. The place doesn’t exactly swing. There was a turning point in modern politics when statesmen started using music to flag up “personality” and that was Bill Clinton playing sax on The Arsenio Hall Show in June 1992 (Hall: “It’s nice to see a Democrat blow something besides the election”). The footage – in which he sounded pretty good – was circulated all over the world; then he went jogging in a Rolling Stone T-shirt for a photo op and that didn’t do him any harm, either.
Keen for a bit of the Clinton-style rock’n’roll lustre, Tony Blair, ex of Ugly Rumours, hung out with the Gallaghers in the run-up to his election and once attended the Q magazine awards, talking about how much he loved the US rock band Mountain and their song “Nantucket Sleighride”.
Politicians ever since have been expected to demonstrate their love of rock’n’roll but none of them has been able to look genuine.
There was Gordon Brown praising Arctic Monkeys (“They’re very loud”) and Cameron’s admiration for the Smiths (Johnny Marr responded by implementing a “listening ban” on his music). Musicians hate being namechecked by Westminster and the public just smells spin.
Desert Island Discs, on which Ed Miliband appeared on 24 November, seems to be a politician’s only chance to reveal personal taste without public outcry. For some, the melodies that animate the inner life are alarmingly in tune with the ideas that feed the outer one. When Enoch Powell was asked to appear on the show in 1989, he told the producer: “Well, it’s bound to be Wagner.” And, indeed, it was: four of the pieces he chose were by the German composer.
Today, teams of advisers are charged with picking out tunes for political guests, aimed at sending the right signals across a vast spectrum of the voting public. Politicians are more likely to confess a “guilty pleasure” – Cameron had Benny Hill’s “Ernie (the Fastest Milkman in the West)” on his list; Thatcher chose “Two Little Boys” on BBC Radio Blackburn – than a love for opera.
“Be honest” is what Sue Lawley, who presented the programme from 1988 to 2006, used to say to her guests. Ed Miliband denied there had been any advisers: “Some people will not like some of the songs and that’s as it should be,” he told Kirsty Young, “but this is a list I chose.”
The first tier of Ed’s discs presents the telescopic yet patriotic socialist statesman: the South African national anthem, “Jerusalem” (our national school song) and “Joe Hill” by the actor and civil rights campaigner Paul Robeson. Then there’s A-ha’s 1985 hit “Take on Me” to remind us how young he is. And Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” for the grey vote – and in honour of his wife, apparently. Robbie Williams’s “Angels” signals the ordinary guy again, being the national wedding dance: it was this song that Ed said he’d dive in to rescue from the waves. Then there was Josh Ritter – who? Exactly! Ed is hip. Finally, a message to everyone from nine to 90: “Non, je ne regrette rien” by the Little Sparrow – this is a strong leader who has no regrets about shafting his brother.
If anything, Ed’s list was distinctly impersonal. At least he’s not likely to have got the back up of any of the artists he namechecked. Not even Robbie, who admitted on The Graham Norton Show that whenever he sings his mega-hit nowadays, he’s usually thinking of something else anyway.