Sleaford Mods, the 1975, Fred Again: the songs that sum up each year of Tory government

Estimated read time 12 min read

Fourteen years is a long time in pop, although not as long as it used to be. The last period of Conservative rule, from 1979 to 1997, took the UK from post-punk and disco to drum’n’bass and Britpop. Today, you can look back at the first year of David Cameron’s coalition government and see Britain’s current megastars in one form or another – Adele, Coldplay, Ed Sheeran, Harry Styles – as well as its dominant genres: rap, dance-pop, earnest men with acoustic guitars. It does not feel like a different world.

This Tory reign has also been less narratively comprehensible than its predecessor. During the 1980s, music mirrored the times with a mix of full-colour pop stars who shared Thatcherism’s aspirational thrust, if not its politics, and spiky refuseniks in black and grey. The last 14 years broke down into distinct phases, and not just because there were five very different prime ministers: first the austerity years, then the Brexit wars, then Covid, corruption and chaos. Like Taylor Swift, it has eras. An incoherent government makes for a hard story to tell.

The 2012 Olympics ceremonies may have flaunted the soft power of British music, but in policy terms, the Conservatives have been no friends to the scene. Savage cuts to arts programmes and a more stringent benefits regime have stifled opportunity and made pop and rock, though not rap, markedly more middle class. The barriers to movement thrown up by Brexit have made touring in Europe logistically complicated and punishingly expensive. But most of the trends that have shaped music consumption over the past 14 years have been global: streaming, TikTok, the boom in live music as an antidote to online life.

Nonetheless, music always tells the story of its times, even when it is not actively trying: themes, moods, hopes, fears. Enormous events have taken place, from the Grenfell fire to the pandemic, from Corbynism to Brexit. Beyond the usual love and dancing of the Top 40, there has been a trend towards surly, dyspeptic accounts of life on these islands: the sound of a Britain that is more fractious, volatile and dissatisfied than the one the Tories inherited.

2010: A left-footed ode for kickoff

Football mad … James Corden and Dizzee Rascal.View image in fullscreen

Britain in May 2010 did not know what it wanted or where it was going. After 13 years, a shameful war and a global financial crisis, New Labour was exhausted but David Cameron’s Tories were hardly setting hearts afire either and were forced to forge a coalition with Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats, to the eventual ruination of the junior partner. A few weeks after the election came another misbegotten alliance that would be forgotten as quickly as Cleggmania. Shout (Shout for England) united an increasingly confused Dizzee Rascal with an increasingly ubiquitous James Corden for a grisly, lead-footed ode to England’s World Cup hopes. “Think about the future,” urged Dizzee. Fabio Capello’s team was knocked out in the second round by Germany, 4-1.

2011: The powder keg erupts

A new age of street protest began in late 2010 with fiery demonstrations against student fees, where Lethal Bizzle’s 2004 grime hit Pow! (Forward) became the unofficial anthem. In August 2011, after 29-year-old Mark Duggan was shot dead by police in Tottenham, riots broke out across London and other English cities. This eruption of discontent, confirming the death of New Labour’s dream of post-class politics, led Plan B to write Ill Manors, a kind of powder-keg hip-hop companion to Owen Jones’s book Chavs. The rapper absorbed and weaponised prejudices about “council estate kids, scum of the earth”, ripping through austerity, inequality and Boris Johnson’s tenure as London’s mayor: “There’s no such thing as broken Britain / We’re just bloody broke in Britain.” Interpolating riot footage and caricatures of Cameron and Clegg, the video now resembles a high-explosive time capsule.

2012: Kate Bush’s Olympic gold

Sir Chris Hoy leads the GB Olympic team.View image in fullscreen

During the Brexit years, the 2012 Olympics and Paralympics became fetishised as the last time the UK felt joyfully united. Given the growing problems outlined in Ill Manors, this was partly a case of hindsight bias but that summer’s temporary euphoria was no illusion. The various ceremonies served as Live Aid-style showcases for Britain’s pop heritage. Remixed for the Olympics closing ceremony, Kate Bush’s Running Up That Hill was not just appropriately athletic – like David Bowie’s Heroes, which soundtracked Team GB’s entrance two weeks earlier, it presaged a boom in nostalgia for past glories, elevating those artists to the status of saintly national treasures. Looking back, you can see that Britain was far more comfortable telling stories about its past than its future.

2013: Dawn of the scabrous malcontent

Sleaford Mods.View image in fullscreen

Cameron and George Osborne’s austerity programme was biting hard after three years, spawning low growth, high unemployment and a general sense of malaise. Austerity Dogs, by Nottingham electro-punk hecklers Sleaford Mods, felt like its subject: damp, dirty, aggro, overlooked and bilious with resentment. Initially compared to the Fall’s Mark E Smith, Jason Williamson proved to be the first of a new wave of scabrous street-corner malcontents – Idles, slowthai, Bob Vylan – who mapped the left-behind precincts of a crumbling nation.

2014: Asylum-seekers in a paper cup boat

Global shame … a sand sculpture depicting drowned Syrian boy Alan Kurdi.View image in fullscreen

The EU received more asylum applications in 2014 than at any time since 1992, during the wars in the former Yugoslavia. The largest numbers were coming from Syria via Libya, two countries where the hopes of 2011’s Arab Spring had gone up in flames, and Iraq and Afghanistan, legacies of the lethally hubristic War on Terror. The death of two-year-old Syrian boy Alan Kurdi by drowning, during the peak of the crisis in autumn 2015, focused minds, leading to songs like Coldplay’s Aliens and PJ Harvey’s The Camp as well as Wolf Alice’s fundraiser Bands 4 Refugees. But Elbow were ahead of the curve with The Blanket of Night, an empathetic nocturne about two asylum-seekers in a “paper cup of a boat”.

2015: Wake-up calls for a burning world

Climate warning … Anohni.View image in fullscreen

Climate dread is the ghastly backdrop of our era, whoever is in charge. In the year that the Paris agreement vowed to try to limit global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, Anohni released 4 Degrees, a nightmarishly sarcastic expression of fear and guilt produced with apocalyptic zeal by Hudson Mohawke and Oneohtrix Point Never, horns blasting as if the whole planet were Jericho. Anohni later combined it with other “stealth assaults on denial” on her 2016 album Hopelessness, which remains perhaps music’s most unflinching engagement with the intolerable awareness of a burning world.

2016: Twin shocks of Brexit and Trump

Kae Tempest.View image in fullscreen

“Cruel 2016 was the year that took our idols,” sang Nadine Shah. It was a haunted year for music, with David Bowie’s death’s-door masterpiece Blackstar, Nick Cave’s grief-broken Skeleton Tree and a string of prominent deaths culminating with George Michael’s on Christmas Day. In the wider world, the twin shocks of the Brexit referendum result and Donald Trump’s election exploded liberal certainties about the limits of right-wing populism, made more horrific by the murder of MP Jo Cox. First released months before the referendum, Kae Tempest’s Europe Is Lost was not a remainer’s lament but a nauseated jeremiad against poverty, bigotry, violence and the rot beneath the surface, with shades of the zombie London in TS Eliot’s The Waste Land. Their sardonic cry of “England! England! Patriotism!” made them a kind of Brexit Cassandra. Radiohead’s Burn the Witch, with its playfully creepy folk-horror video, was similarly prophetic: a “low-flying panic attack” from the toxic murk of England’s subconscious. Something wicked this way comes.

2017: A bombing and a tower ablaze

Calling out Theresa May … Stormzy at Glastonbury 2017.View image in fullscreen

Rock music took on the role of folk music in 2017. After a terrorist suicide-bomber killed 22 people at an Ariana Grande show at Manchester Arena in May, Mancunians seized upon Oasis’s Don’t Look Back in Anger as a civic anthem of loss and endurance. At Glastonbury a month later, following Labour’s unforeseen close run in the general election, Jeremy Corbyn’s speech was greeted by a vast crowd singing his name to the tune of the White Stripes’ Seven Nation Army. For one moment, a 67-year-old socialist looked like a rock star. Elsewhere at the festival, Corbyn-boosting rapper Stormzy called out Theresa May’s government over the Grenfell tower fire, the tragedy that came to symbolise the Tories’ callous neglect of the country’s most vulnerable citizens. In August, his verse was the standout turn on Artists for Grenfell’s fundraising version of Bridge Over Troubled Water, that secular hymn for every occasion.

2018: From doomscrolling to the drill panic

Two takes on 2018: one global, one local. On Love It if We Made It, the 1975’s Matty Healy approximated the overwhelming, disempowering sensation of doomscrolling, his anxious brain flitting from Trump to Twitter and Alan Kurdi to Black Lives Matter: “Modernity has failed us.” By contrast, Unknown T stuck to his east London postcode on Homerton B, the defining anthem of UK drill. During the moral panic over drill, various crews were banned from rapping about their rivals, or from making music altogether without permission from the Metropolitan police, while the right-wing think tank Policy Exchange made the wild claim that 37% of murders that year were linked to the music. Less publicised was the fact that these claustrophobic tales of violence and hustling were made by very young men who had grown up in the claws of austerity. Conservatives love a folk devil.

2019: The Specials rewrite the Commandments

Manifesto … the Specials perform in the ruined former Coventry cathedral.View image in fullscreen

If any one song is indelibly associated with the Thatcher years, then it’s the Specials’ 1981 hit Ghost Town, so it was apt that the band returned during the dog days of Theresa May’s premiership with an album of glowering disaffection featuring songs such as BLM and Vote for Me. The band had spotted activist Saffiyah Khan wearing a Specials T-shirt as she confronted an anti-Muslim EDL member two years earlier and picked her to voice 10 Commandments, which turned Prince Buster’s notoriously misogynist 1967 hit into a spiky feminist manifesto for the era of #MeToo and YouTube misogynists.

2020: Bedroom disco for life in lockdown

Just weeks before Covid-19 brought the shutters down, Dave stunned the Brit awards with a mountingly intense performance of Black that foreshadowed the racial reckoning that would come to our shores after the murder of George Floyd in May. He closed with a mic-dropping new verse that took in Grenfell, the Windrush scandal and “real racist” Boris Johnson, and led Lisa Nandy to call it “the best political speech I’ve seen in a decade”. But if lockdown itself had a consensus soundtrack, then it wasn’t an expression of anger, sadness or fear but the sorely needed bedroom-disco escapism of Dua Lipa’s Future Nostalgia album.

2021: Bittersweet banger in search of a crowd

Strange times … Fred Again.View image in fullscreen

For almost 18 months, stages, festival fields and dancefloors fell silent, with no clear sense of when they might return to raucous life. Fred Again and the Blessed Madonna caught the eerie absence of the “things we took for granted” on Marea (We’ve Lost Dancing), a bittersweet banger in search of a crowd. The longed-for return of going out then brought with it two sharp-eyed reflections on hedonism and its discontents from charismatic new stars: Wet Leg’s oddball romp Chaise Longue and the mid-youth angst of Self Esteem’s I Do This All the Time, whose line “prioritise pleasure” made for a handy post-pandemic mantra.

2022: Day-to-day life in Armageddon City

Little Simz at the 2022 Mercury prize.View image in fullscreen

On 18 October, a week before the fall of Liz Truss as PM, London MC Little Simz won the Mercury prize for her album Sometimes I Might Be Introvert. Hard on the heels of her triumph came the surprise album No Thank You, produced by Inflo, the secretive producer known for his work with Michael Kiwanuka and Sault. Simz epitomised music’s fast-growing candour about mental health and the trials of the industry – two subjects that artists used to avoid. On Broken’s luminous soul, she unpacked the anxieties of a generation living day to day in the “armageddon city”, forced to negotiate an overheated property market, gutted public services and the precarity of the gig economy: “Work two jobs, just so rice is on the children’s plate.”

2023: Blacklisting and demonising

Tory politicians rarely meddled directly with the machinery of pop, although Theresa May used anti-terrorism legislation to block US rapper Tyler, the Creator from entering the UK in 2015 and Kemi Badenoch intervened this year to banjax a £15,000 government grant to Belfast hip-hop trio Kneecap. “It’s hardly surprising that we don’t want to hand out UK tax money to people that oppose the United Kingdom itself,” she explained, essentially blacklisting Irish republicans. Already demonised as sectarian firestarters by the DUP and the Daily Mail, Kneecap protested that their music was meant to be inclusive. Better Way to Live, a bilingual, border-crossing collaboration with Grian Chatten of Dublin’s Fontaines DC, was a swaggering carpe-diem celebration of living large in trying times.

2024: Dance away a wretched era

It may inspire a cringe now, but Noel Gallagher’s visit to 10 Downing Street in July 1997 represented a genuine connection between the cultural efflorescence of Britpop and the downfall of John Major’s Tories: a changing of the guard. When protester Steve Bray blasted out D:Ream’s Things Can Only Get Better as Rishi Sunak announced the election, it underlined the absence of musical Starmerism, and the fact that Labour has a much more daunting task of reconstruction this time. AG Cook’s giddy Charli xcx-sampling Britpop, illustrated by a psychedelic pink-and-green mutation of the Union Jack, offers a strange bridge between then and now. At once cheerful and neurotic, it’s a neat reflection of our long national identity crisis and an invitation to dance away a wretched era.


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