The politician’s swift route to mockery

When Prime Minister Rishi Sunak declared his love for the music of Taylor Swift, he was opening himself up to a peculiarly British form of criticism. He is not the first senior politician to have their musical taste placed under public scrutiny.

Taylor Swift at the 65th annual Grammy Awards on Sunday, Feb. 5, 2023, in Los Angeles. Credit: Associated Press / Alamy Stock Photo

It was recently revealed that the UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, taking a much-needed family holiday in California, attended a Taylor Swift concert. Although Sunak’s official spokesman refused to confirm his presence at the show, saying: ‘I’m just not going to get into what activity the PM did whilst taking a break. I think it’s an important principle to maintain that’, he was not so unbending as to deny reports that Sunak is – like a surprisingly large number of middle-aged men – a so-called ‘Swiftie’, commenting on the assumption that ‘I’m not going to guide you away from it.’

In this regard, at least, Sunak shares something with his even more hapless predecessor, Liz Truss, who alternated between describing Whitney Houston’s ‘I Wanna Dance With Somebody’ and Swift’s ‘Blank Space’ as her favourite song; cruelly, but accurately, Channel Four television used the latter to soundtrack her resignation and departure from office in October 2022. Yet, to their credit, neither Truss nor Sunak have ever pretended to have highbrow taste in music; their populist listening is of a piece with their would-be populist policies, as well as being typical choices for any number of Oxbridge PPE graduates. But both premiers should be well aware that a question as innocuous as ‘what’s your favourite song?’ can become inadvertently fatal to a reputation. Choose the wrong answer, and court ridicule forever; choose the ‘right’ answer, and be accused of bandwagon-jumping.

Margaret Thatcher, who was almost comically uninterested in pop music, fell into the former category. She first told Smash Hits’ amused interviewer Tom Hibbert in 1987 that her favourite song was Patti Page’s ‘How Much is that Doggy in the Window?’ and restated this, even singing a brief snatch of the tune, in a video message broadcast at the Brit Awards in 1990. Although the moment had no direct bearing on her departure from office that November, it made her look uniquely detached from the musical and cultural concerns of the country she was governing, although at a time when the Brit awards were being divided up between the Fine Young Cannibals and Phil Collins, the generous-spirited might suggest that Thatcher was right to eschew the regrettable effluent of the charts in favour of Page’s altogether more timeless offering.

Others have fared less well. David Cameron’s much-trumpeted love of Radiohead and the Smiths, which detractors sneered seemed focus-grouped to make him seem like a cooler, more approachable Conservative, was met with sighs and distaste by members of both bands, who duly spoke out publicly against him. Thom Yorke announced he would ‘sue the living shit’ out of Cameron if he attempted to use any Radiohead songs in an election campaign, while the Smiths’ Johnny Marr, exasperated by the Prime Minister’s repeated admiration for his act, tweeted ‘David Cameron, stop saying that you like the Smiths, no you don’t. I forbid you to like it.’ Cameron, however, had a revenge of sorts, when he was able to quip, of Morrissey’s much-criticised support of the far-right political group For Britain, ‘he’s gone shooting past me’; a change of pace from the time in 2016 that he once called the singer ‘my favourite man’ during PMQs and [mis] quoted the Smiths’ ‘Cemetery Gates’.

Yet few have seriously argued that Cameron, who is often seen at music festivals in Oxfordshire, does not have an interest in contemporary music. Harsher criticisms might be made of everyone from former Labour leader Ed Miliband, who unconvincingly chose Robbie Williams’s ‘Angels’ as his favourite song on Desert Island Discs, to Boris Johnson, who has made half-hearted allusion to admiring both the Rolling Stones and the Clash, but whose own desert island selection was a half-hearted grab-bag of Bach, Beatles, Beethoven and Brahms; inoffensively tasteful, impersonal and seemingly mostly picked from the letter ‘B’ on a Spotify selection.

Politicians who venture from the beaten path of popular music must be wary. Cameron’s altogether more highbrow Chancellor, George Osborne, is a regular visitor to the Wagner festival at Bayreuth, where he was photographed in the company of his fellow Conservative Michael Gove. The latter seems embarrassed by his status as a Wagnerian, saying in one interview that ‘I like all the music that politicians are not supposed to like… I have the worst taste in music of anyone I know’, and dismissing his much-beloved Richard as writing music which ‘marks you out as a right-wing lunatic, if not sexually confused or repressed from the beginning’. Comparisons have been made between Gove – one of the few politicians to have served in Cabinet roles in every administration since Cameron – and various characters from Wagner’s Ring Cycle, but only the cruel would compare him to the scheming, covetous dwarf Alberich, forever manipulating events and surviving while all the apparently virtuous characters perish.

Yet if Gove was self-conscious enough to apologise for his admiration for Wagner, other politicians have seen nothing amiss about such an appreciation. When Enoch Powell went on Desert Island Discs in 1989, his choices were admirably straightforward; four pieces by Wagner (including his favourite, ‘The Renunciation of Siegfried’, from Götterdämmerung), three by Beethoven and Haydn’s ‘Recitative’. Indeed, Wagner might almost be the house composer for the Conservative party; others who have saluted him include David Mellor, Michael Portillo and Jeremy Hunt, who once said ‘At 11, our music master made us listen to the entire Ring Cycle. I loved it, partly because it was a cracking story.’ Again, comparisons between those blinded by power and gold and the current Chancellor are surely unjust.

There is no such totemic figure for the Labour party, although both Jeremy Corbyn and Keir Starmer’s attempts to embrace the increasingly reluctant rapper Stormzy suggest that they are far more interested in courting the youth vote than the Tories ever have been. Tony Blair attempted to keep both Blur and Oasis on side in the great Britpop wars of the Nineties, and presented a lifetime achievement award to David Bowie at the Brits in 1996 – where, tactfully enough, no mention was made of Bowie’s coke-addled 1976 statement that Britain ‘could benefit from a fascist leader’ – thereby mirroring Harold Wilson’s decision, while Leader of the Opposition, to be photographed with the Beatles in March 1964 and then to ensure that they were awarded MBEs in October 1965. Wilson’s reward, naturally, was to be ridiculed in George Harrison’s bitter ‘Taxman’ on Revolver the following year; one of a small handful of songs written by a millionaire musician complaining about the punitive rate of high-end taxation.

Sunak, at least, need not worry about successful musicians criticising him; the fragmentation of popular tastes since the advent of streaming means that there will never again be an act as totemic as the Beatles, and it is taken as a given that no mainstream act would be able to support the Conservatives publicly and retain their credibility, whatever they might believe privately. Yet his decision to attend a Taylor Swift concert, and thus nail his colours to that particular mast, will define him personally throughout the rest of his premiership. He must be hoping, when it comes to any mockery, that he will simply be able to shake it off, but he may also worry that, come the next election, the judgement of voters may mirror a song on Swift’s 2012 Red album: ‘We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together’.


Alexander Larman