Martyn McLaughlin: PM has every right to grieve for David Bowie

People take photos of a mural of David Bowie, in Brixton, south London. Picture: PA
People take photos of a mural of David Bowie, in Brixton, south London. Picture: PA
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WE might hate Cameron and Osborne, but we should defend their right to pay tribute, writes Martyn McLaughlin

The average politician may react to popular culture as a slug does to salt, but the unedifying trend which vilifies them for speaking out whenever a great artist dies shows how we bear responsibility for the disconnect between the lives of the political class and ours.

In the outpouring of condolences that followed the death of David Bowie, the grief police were promptly out on patrol, censuring those whose remarks they deemed to be an affectation. Naturally, this zealous crackdown trained its sights on our elected representatives, with the greatest opprobrium reserved for David Cameron and George Osborne.

Over the course of a glum day, both men joined the rest of world in trying to make sense of Bowie’s immeasurable legacy. The Prime Minister first issued a short message via Twitter, later following it up with a video and a fuller statement on his Facebook page.

The latter hailed the musician as a “master of invention who kept getting it right” and described Bowie as someone people of his generation felt they had grown up with. “He provided a soundtrack to our lives,” the Prime Minister said.

The Chancellor, meanwhile, sent out a two-sentence statement expressing sadness as Bowie’s death. “His music was a backdrop to my life,” it said. “An incredible icon of British creativity who made us proud.”

Immediately, the attacks flew thick and fast across social media. Cameron, one tweeter raged, was the “antithesis” of everything Bowie stood for. Others declared his opinion “invalid” or asserted that Bowie would have “hated” the fact he saw fit to contribute.

Osborne fared little better, with one poster on his Facebook page insisting: “This isn’t for you. Bowie was NOT for you. Get your hands off of [sic] our culture. You don’t deserve it.”

The majority of the criticism was rooted in the idea of insincerity. How could any professional politician, let alone the frontrunners of the Conservatives, connect with a figure as daring and provocative as Brixton’s most famous son?

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The broadcaster Andrew Collins denounced Cameron’s intervention as an “insidious and hollow” gesture, one in keeping with his use of social media to “attach himself to what he thinks are issues that will endear him to the electorate.” He added: “Jumping in with a personal tribute to David Bowie, on the great man’s untimely death, felt particularly ghoulish to me.”

There are two problems with this assessment. Firstly, are we so naive as to believe the media tricks first honed by Tony Blair in the frenzy of the Britpop era remain sufficiently potent as to dupe the electorate?

Secondly, look closer at the tribute in question; there is no trace of the intimacy Collins suggests. What Cameron and Osborne had to say was reserved, generic even. Some suggested they were not even the authors of their own sentiments. If that is the case – and there is good reason to suppose the messages were polished up by a youthful staffer at the very least – then so what?

We belittle politicians for being out of touch yet refuse to believe their occasional engagement with popular music is anything other than opportunism, even if their contribution is inoffensive to the point of being bland.

In the case of a major public figure’s death, it is convention for those in charge of the country to offer up a few words of recognition. Had they chosen to stay silent this week, would not the self-appointed guardians of sympathy have adjudged that a far more grievous offence?

The truth is we do not know the extent of Cameron or Osborne’s affection for Bowie, but we must tentatively give them the benefit of the doubt. Both are of the right age to have enjoyed flirtations with his various personas; Cameron would have been 16 at the time he was enjoying his commercial peak with 1983’s Let’s Dance album, while Tin Machine might conceivably have provided the soundtrack for Osborne’s teenage years.

The archive even throws up a compelling tabloid affidavit from Natalie Rowe, a former dominatrix, who alleged the would-be chancellor and his friends would frequent her London flat in the early 1990s to indulge in some Bowiesque hedonism and musical experimentation. “They would sing Gold by Spandau Ballet,” Rowe recalled. “George liked Heroes by David Bowie. They would all sing along.”

Evidence of an equally colourful nature is, regrettably, thin on the ground. Neither man has professed to owning the Santa Monica ‘72 bootleg or to have habitually donned one-legged leotards or knitted jumpsuits in their adolescence. Their discretion on such matters may owe more to the Bullingdon Club’s policy of omertà than it does hidebound fashion sensibilities, but no matter – the onus should be not on them to authenticate their feelings on an issue that is peripheral to their day job.

By all means question their truthfulness when it comes to matters of government, but is it necessary to ask them to hold up a grainy C90 version of Lodger by way of corroborating their musical tastes? In any case, why has this indignation not led to the reprimand of others who gave unexpected tributes in the wake of Bowie’s death, a list that includes sporting figures, astronauts and newsreaders? If taken to its illogical conclusion, the inane argument that precludes politicians from this discourse ought to apply equally to those others, and we are left with a tearful Iggy Pop.

The only meaningful truth is that grief, like music, is at once personal and communal. Our responses to it can be clumsy and volatile. But they should require no qualification nor provoke demonisation.