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The rare breed of the conservative rock star

It is a strange world we live in when a musician’s personal politics leads to as much uproar as Winston Marshall’s case has

Artillery Row

It used to take quite a lot for a rock musician to be thrown out of a band, or to leave of his or her own accord. The notoriously hellraising likes of Keith Moon and Keith Richards managed to continue to serve valiantly in their groups, despite the extraordinary extra-curricular activities they managed, and bad behaviour has been something of a prerequisite to live the rock star dream.

Yet things are changing, in our more censorious age. The most recent high-profile sacking, that of Kasabian lead singer Tom Meighan, took place after he was convicted of domestic assault: less a thrillingly licentious walk on the wild side and more a grubby and sad reminder of what a combination of alcohol, drugs and mental health issues can do to interpersonal relationships off-stage. 

Now, the name of Winston Marshall can be added to the list of high-profile musicians leaving successful groups. Marshall, the former lead guitarist for Mumford and Sons, has departed the band by “mutual consent”, after praising the writer Andy Ngo’s book, Unmasked: Inside Antifa’s Radical Plan to Destroy Democracy, in March.

Marshall has long been regarded as politically suspect by the keyboard warriors of social media

Marshall has long been regarded as politically suspect by the keyboard warriors of social media, given that he has associated with Jordan Peterson in the past, and his father, Sir Paul Marshall, is a prominent Vote Leave supporter who has invested in GB News. Given the anger and suspicion with which any right-leaning musician is regarded, it was inevitable that Marshall’s own views and opinions would come under scrutiny. Coupled with the resentment and suspicion that an apparently effortlessly successful band like Mumford and Sons has received, the usual result (endless abuse) duly followed. 

It is a strange world in which a musician’s personal politics can lead to such opprobrium. In a dignified and literate statement, Marshall, referring to the “divisive and totemic issue” that had caused him to leave the band, wrote: 

Though there’s nothing wrong with being conservative, when forced to politically label myself I flutter between “centrist”, “liberal” or the more honest “bit this, bit that”. Being labelled erroneously just goes to show how binary political discourse has become. I had criticised the “Left”, so I must be the “Right”, or so their logic goes.

He had initially apologised for his support of Ngo, but now retracted his apology, saying: 

The truth is that my commenting on a book that documents the extreme Far-Left and their activities is in no way an endorsement of the equally repugnant Far-Right. The truth is that reporting on extremism at the great risk of endangering oneself is unquestionably brave. I also feel that my previous apology in a small way participates in the lie that such extremism does not exist, or worse, is a force for good.

Quoting Solzhenitsyn, he stated that he would no longer hide his political views, and would refuse to self-censor. Marshall therefore became a hate figure to one sector of opinion, and a hero to another. It will be extremely interesting to see what he does next. Perhaps an opinion slot on GB News awaits.

It’s hard to find many rock stars who have expressed conservative or right-wing views

Traditionally, the rock music industry has been a left wing, anti-establishment one. It is hard to find many leading figures within it who have expressed conservative views or support for right-wing policies, and those who have, such as Eric Clapton or Bryan Ferry, have usually been carpeted as a result. Clapton’s notorious 1976 statements of support for Enoch Powell and plea to “keep Britain white” have dogged his reputation ever since, and he has continued, as recently as a 2007 South Bank Show appearance, to reiterate his belief that Powell made a valid point. It has come as no great surprise that he has supported Van Morrison in the latter’s anti-mask and anti-lockdown sentiments, with the two collaborating on the song “Stand and Deliver” — perhaps the Covid protest song that we’ve all been waiting for.

Clapton and Van Morrison are not alone, however. The likes of Morrissey, Roger Waters, Ian Brown and Noel Gallagher, to name four musicians of a certain vintage, have all expressed political views that lie considerably outside mainstream thought in recent months and years, and despite a degree of outrage at their comments, there has been no serious attempt to curtail their careers. (Perhaps it is no coincidence that all four men were once involved in famous bands, which they departed in acrimonious circumstances.) Even if none of them wrote another song or ever performed again, they would still be wealthy and successful, which is more than can be said for younger, less established acts, who take the idea of cancellation considerably more seriously and are therefore more measured in their public statements.

It is a terrifying indictment of free speech that Marshall’s piece of literary criticism even merited an apology

Although there are musicians such as Gary Barlow and Tony Hadley who have always been reasonably open about their support for the Conservatives, it now seems impossible that — as was rumoured in 2009 — a hipper figure such as Mark Ronson would ever offer a public endorsement of the Tories. There are many leading musicians whose own personal politics can best be described as ambiguous, but most of them, if put on the spot, would either offer a rote statement of support for whichever acceptably left-wing party happened to be in the ascendant, or would simply change the subject altogether. It would not be worth it, for their “brand” — or for that of the act with which they were associated — to court controversy over such a matter. 

We are a world away from David Bowie declaring in the Seventies: “I believe very strongly in fascism” and that “Adolf Hitler was one of the first rock stars”, before announcing, “I am the only alternative for the premier in England. I believe Britain could benefit from a fascist leader.” Yet Bowie ended his life arguably the most beloved of all contemporary musicians, and most of his admirers were quick to excuse his comments as either theatrical provocation or the result of his notorious mid-Seventies drug addiction. 

It is unlikely that any such allowance will be made for Marshall. He has dared to put his head over the parapet and advance political opinions that, while uncontroversial in mainstream thought, will not benefit him or his band in public life. The spectre of public protests taking place at Mumford and Sons concerts was one that all parties would wish to avoid, and, from a purely commercial level, he has probably made the right decision.

Yet it is a terrifying indictment of free speech and society that Marshall’s piece of literary criticism first merited an apology, and now defenestration. Perhaps it suggests that rock music and politics, for so long inextricably entwined, are now best dealt with separately from one another. Otherwise, the consequences can be long-lasting and regrettable for the art’s practitioners, even if the loss to artistry itself is even greater.

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