Frank Turner's (A)Political Stance Is Part Of A Post-Ideological Culture
"I thought that if you had an acoustic guitar/Then it meant that you were a protest singer" sang the Smiths in 1985. Lots of people seem to have thought that about Frank Turner until they read Michael Hann's blogpost highlighting anti-leftist comments that Turner had made in a 2009 interview.
The singer-songwriter responded with a blogpost of his own, seeking to set the record straight: "Most of my friends disagree with me, not least Billy Bragg and Chris T-T. But, being adults, we understand that intelligent people can disagree about stuff. Despite occasionally running my mouth … I don't think people who call themselves socialists are evil, mad, stupid or deserving of being attacked; I just see the world differently."
The last time I discussed politics with Turner, we were sharing a tiny dressing room at a benefit gig for people with disabilities. I was chiding him for claiming in an interview that he was not a political songwriter. I reminded him what happened at his recent Wembley Arena gig when he played his song Glory Hallelujah – 12,000 people lifted up their voices and sang the refrain "Because there never was no God".
"C'mon," I said, "You've got to admit that's political." He shook his head vehemently. "No, it's not," he said, taking a slug on another of my beers. "It's just me saying what I think". Was he being evasive, unwilling to engage in political debate for fear of revealing his rightwing leanings? Or simply refusing to have his politics defined by the values of a previous generation?
Although we come from differing backgrounds, Turner and I began our political journeys from the same point, self-identifying as anarchists. My anarchy was inspired not by Bakunin, but by the Sex Pistols. It was less a political philosophy, more a late-70s version of postwar youth, first articulated by Marlon Brando in the 1953 biker movie The Wild One. When someone asks him what he's rebelling against, Brando laconically replies "What have you got?".
While it never amounted to much more than a rhetorical position in drink-fuelled discussions, thinking of myself as an anarchist absolved me from voting in the 1979 UK general election, my argument being that there was no real discernible difference between Labour and the Tories.
Events quickly exposed my naivety. By the 1983 election, I recognised that the Tories under Margaret Thatcher were different to Labour, threatening the things that I took for granted such as the welfare state, peace in Europe, our diverse society. Yet my debut album, released that year, expressed politics that were mostly personal. It took the miners' strike to open my eyes. After a year of playing benefit gigs in mining communities up and down the country, witnessing class war at first hand, I began writing songs that spoke in the ideological language of the left. In interviews, I identified myself as a socialist.
Turner, like most musicians of his generation, has never played on a picket line. Born in 1981, he spent 2000-2005 in a hardcore punk band called Million Dead. This period also saw the rise in popularity of the MP3 music file. For the first time, peer-to-peer file sharing offered musicians a means to reach their audience without surrendering control to the man.
When the major record companies moved to close down the Napster file sharing site in 2001, many saw this as an attempt to suppress the freedoms that they enjoyed on the internet. Anger was directed not only against corporate conglomerates and government agencies implementing the crack-down, but at the whole concept of copyright itself. Bloggers began to self-identify as libertarians, giving a political dimension to their anger.
I get the feeling that Turner's politics were defined by this struggle, that, inspired by the libertarian language of the blogosphere, he adopted a worldview that echoes that espoused by Mick Jagger in the 1960s.
Following his release from drugs charges in 1967, Jagger was interviewed on TV by William Rees-Mogg, then editor of the Times. According to his memoirs, Rees-Mogg, expecting to hear Jagger express the left-leaning views of the Beatles, was astonished to find that the leader of the Rolling Stones took an individualistic libertarian view on ethical and social issues. Writing years later, Rees-Mogg argued that Jagger could be described as an early Thatcherite.
Which is not to say that Turner is a follower of the Iron Lady. Rather, he seems to have come to the same conclusion that I did in the late 70s, that there is not much difference between Labour and the Tories. I think he's wrong, but, having come of age in a time when ideology was dumped in favour of triangulation, who can blame him?
His angry denunciation of the left, made in the 2009 Moon & Back Music interview, should be seen in that light. He made these comments before the Tories came to power, galvanising a new generation into anti-cuts activists, and he has quickly issued a statement making it clear that he is no supporter of David Cameron. And of course he isn't the first pop star to slip spectacularly on a banana skin when making sweeping statements about politics.
Turner has a social conscience, let no one be in any doubt about that. He will stand in opposition to anyone he feels is holding people back from reaching their full potential – witness his support for the rights of people with disabilities at that benefit gig last month. What he doesn't have – or even feels he requires – is an ideological analysis to back up the ideas expressed in his songs.
Since Labour dropped Clause Four, mainstream politics in Britain has, for better or worse, become increasingly post-ideological. Given that sea change, is it right to expect the new generation, angry at the unfairness of Cameron's Britain, to express themselves in the same political language that we used in the 20th century? Turner and many of his generation, see the world differently. That doesn't mean we can't work together to find new ways to articulate the ideals that we share.