“Oh dear. Not again.” So read the headline on the front page of last week’s music paper the NME. The words appeared below a quote from Morrissey, in which the former lead singer of The Smiths was alleged to have said: “The gates of England are flooded. The country’s been thrown away.”
The NME article, which is the subject of legal action by Morrissey, further quotes the singer as saying: “with the issue of immigration, it’s very difficult because, although I don’t have anything against people from other countries, the higher the influx into England the more the British identity disappears. So the price is enormous.”
Later on, the article quotes Morrissey as saying: “Other countries have held onto their basic identity, yet it seems to me that England was thrown away... If you walk through Knightsbridge [in London] on any bland day of the week you won’t hear an English accent. You’ll hear every accent under the sun apart from the British accent.”
This is not the first time Morrissey and the NME have clashed over issues relating to national identity and racism. In 1992 the paper criticised the singer bitterly after he appeared on stage at Finsbury Park draped in the Union Flag at a concert where a sizeable neo-Nazi turn-out was expected.
Morrissey’s sometimes ambiguous attitude towards racism had already set alarm bells ringing in 1988, with the unpleasantly patronising song Bengali in Platforms, in which an immigrant from south-east Asia seems to be mocked and is urged to “shelve your western plans”. The 1992 song National Front Disco, which is sung from the standpoint of a young man who is attracted to fascism, only fuelled suspicions about the rock star’s racial politics.
Yet, Morrissey has supported Unite Against Fascism in recent years, and, in last week’s interview, he told the NME he would be happy to back the Love Music, Hate Racism campaign because he finds racism “beyond reason”.
Since the interview he has issued an unequivocal statement saying, “I am pleased to say that we have now had direct dialogue with Love Music Hate Racism and all of our UK tour advertising in 2008 will carry their logo. We will also be providing space in the venues for them to voice and spread their important message, which I endorse.” (» Full statement on Guardian website)
So, if the NME quotes are accurate, Morrissey’s alleged comments in the interview are not only deeply alarming, they are also bizarre.
Such statements would be bad news at any time, but they are particularly unwelcome in the current period.
Many politicians and “newspapers” are currently trying to scapegoat migrants and asylum seekers for the inequalities in our society. Gordon Brown’s nasty campaign on “Britishness” and the Tories’ shift to the right on immigration have played into the hands of the Nazi BNP.
The comments attributed to Morrissey are especially disappointing given his own background.
Morrissey (full name Steven Patrick Morrissey) grew up in a working-class household in Manchester, the son of Irish Catholic immigrants. In recent years he has lived in Dublin, Los Angeles and, most recently, Rome; as such, he has been part of the massive emigration of British citizens to other countries.
He has also often been a source of inspiration for people on the left. Like many young people in Britain in the eighties, I became a Smiths obsessive at the age of 16. I declared myself a revolutionary socialist at the age of 17. The two events were not unrelated.
With songs such as The Queen is Dead and Margaret on the Guillotine (which dreamt of the execution of Thatcher), Morrissey expressed his republican, anti-Tory politics with a wit which he appeared to have borrowed from his hero Oscar Wilde.
In more recent years, in songs such as America is Not the World and I Will See You in Far Off Places, Morrissey has criticised the US for never having had a black, female or openly gay president and attacked the violence of US imperialism. The singer was so outspoken in his opposition to Bush and Blair that he was interviewed by the FBI and British intelligence last year as a possible threat to US and British state security.
So why these latest alleged comments? The fact is Morrissey has always been a contradictory figure.
He has always revelled in being ambiguous, in reinventing his image and in tantalising the press. That’s fine when it’s a matter of teasing journalists over his sexuality; after years of self-professed celibacy he wrote Dear God, Please Help Me, a moving song about a gay sexual experience.
However, when it comes to matters of racism, immigration and national identity, playing games with the press is dangerous and counter-productive.
If Morrissey is merely “nostalgic” for an old England, he should realise that it was an England in which not only black people, but also Irish Catholic migrants, like his parents, often faced appalling racism and in which, until 1967, homosexuality was illegal.
The singer may not be a racist, but, as in the early nineties, he is in danger of giving confidence to those who are.