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Why no one hears the Commonwealth Song

  • Published at 01:34 am April 26th, 2018
Why no one hears the Commonwealth Song

And in the end, all it took was a word from his mother.

Her Majesty may not have a lot to say, but when she asks, prime ministers acquiesce -- especially on the eve of the Queen’s 92nd birthday.

Little wonder Arsene Wenger’s resignation led BBC headlines over the anointment of the Commonwealth’s next figurehead and more Austrians than Australians attended the CHOGM media reception at Lords Cricket Ground (I counted. MCC staff spent half an evening gamely topping up plates while taking care not to visibly outnumber guests).

Even so, there were many well-attended sessions at last week’s summit. Bangladesh was formally thanked for hosting Rohingya refugees. While the Modi roadshow made clear to British officials trying to curry favour with India that the UK won’t get to set the agenda for new trade deals.

A crowning glory, or nadir if you share my antipathy to royalist fawning, was reached in a celebration of the Queen’s Commonwealth Canopy. However environmentally intentioned, this venture largely consists of asking member states to brand parts of their own (usually pre-existing) national parks and forests under the monarch’s name.

I appreciate that it is voluntary not Victorian, but with the biggest contribution so far coming from Canadian First Nations donating the Great Bear Rainforest in BC, it still seems a little “land grabby” for a supposedly post-imperial Commonwealth.

Niceties aside, far from promoting the UK’s soft power, this Commonwealth summit will be most remembered for highlighting the ineptitude of its political class.

An explosion of public disgust about the Kafkaesque impact of recent government policies, which suddenly demanded papers from some members and children of the Windrush generation of pre-1962 migrants from the West Indies -- who have never been anything other than full British citizens and residents for over five decades -- has rightly, if belatedly, embarrassed Theresa May’s government.

By eating humble pie quickly, May expects to divert the blame. Less predictably, but more satisfyingly, the genuinely widespread media and public empathy for those affected, a seeming rarity for immigration-related issues in the wake of Brexit, has swept away most mentions of the 50th anniversary of Enoch Powell’s infamously racist “Rivers of Blood” speech in 1968.

Niceties aside, far from promoting the UK’s soft power, this Commonwealth summit will be most remembered for highlighting the ineptitude of its political class

Despite his instant dismissal from front line politics and the fact that for decades following his speech, the phrase “Enoch was right” regularly accompanied racially-motivated abuse and violence, the one-time minister’s reputation for erudition still occasionally arouses defenders.  To see such types silenced evokes a certain schadenfreude. Not least because it wasn’t always necessarily so.

It is true, as newsreels attest, that, shortly after the Empire Windrush docked in 1948 bringing one of the first large groups of post-war West Indian migrants to Britain, that several of its passengers became celebrities, most notably the Trinidadian calypso musician Lord Kitchener with his instant hit, “London belongs to me.”

This is precisely why echoes of his tune reverberate as a motif in today’s Paddington Bear films. But, for the most part, cold indifference and occasional curiosity were the norm.

So, in 1968, when a vocal group of London dockers marched in support of Powell’s speech, and racists began spouting his name, it was palpably felt as a threat to and by non-white people across the land.

All of which explains why a conversation at that Commonwealth media reception turned to The Beatles. More specifically, the song “Get Back,” written in early 1969 by Paul McCartney, whose London house was just around the corner in St John’s Wood.

If you’re of a certain vintage, the title and date alone are enough to reference that speech. But history records that, for most of its hundreds of millions of listeners, then and now, the song is mainly known for a catchy chorus and tune with inconsequential lyrics.

Just as The Beatles intended.

Quite a feat when you realise the song started out as a satirical take on Powell’s notorious speech, with an attention-grabber of an opening line: “Don’t dig no Pakistanis taking all the people’s jobs.”

Rather than risk misinterpretation, that early version of the song, plus two associated jams, were buried. Completely. Never to be released or acknowledged by Apple.

The satirical intent is easier to discern in the giggly low-fi quality of the two associated tracks. The so-called “Commonwealth Song” starts with McCartney singing “Dirty Enoch Powell said to the immigrants, immigrants you better get back to your commonwealth homes,” before falling into a parodic litany of Commonwealth place names, echoed in the Kinks song “Victoria,” with John Lennon in a silly voice occasionally interjecting “it’s much too common for me.”

Even 50 years ago closer to empire, the Commonwealth was easy to mock.

With the third even more nonsensical jam repeatedly using the phrase “White Power” and many proper songs in the can, hindsight was not necessary to decide to ditch these tracks.

But burying songs is a Herculean task for a band whose every recording and rehearsal was being recorded for posterity. And for whom demand for “new” recordings and original takes never fades.

So, it’s remarkable, given their profile, that this was one controversy that never got stoked. Bar one mid-1980s Q interview, and despite regular rediscoveries of “Get Back” bootlegs by excited but dim-witted racists, McCartney has publicly refrained from talking about the story behind the song.

It takes a certain confidence not to feel a need to explain or be tempted to seek credit for making the right choice years later. Justifiably so in this case.

Ironically, occasional collaborator and long-term Beatle friend, Eric Clapton, revealed himself on stage in 1976 to be a supporter of Enoch Powell’s infamous anti-immigrant stance. For ironies too numerous to mention, he was widely, and rightly, condemned, and the resulting furore so boosted anti-racist movements, it helped get groups like the National Front off UK streets in the 70s.

For the record, his career largely got away with blaming intoxicants for the racist rants, despite displaying a lack of contrition one hopes would be unacceptable today.

Because we all like apologies.

Societies applaud people who say sorry for past wrongs and try to mend their ways. Nobody’s perfect. That’s why some people look for good in the Commonwealth as a means of transcending British imperialism, for the same reason religions welcome sinners who repent.

Sometimes though, we should notice those who get it right the first time. Without being asked. Without causing a fuss. Without ever creating the need for an apology. I take the story of the “Get Back” outtakes as one such example. As for “Commonwealth Song,” well, there was a better reason not to release that anyway -- it’s rubbish.

Niaz Alam is a member of the Editorial Board of Dhaka Tribune. A qualified lawyer, he has worked on corporate responsibility and ethical business issues since 1992. He sat on the Board of the London Pensions Fund Authority between 2001-2010 and is a former vice-chair of War on Want.