The power of song

12 May 2016

1:00 PM

12 May 2016

1:00 PM

You might not think that the Eurovision Song Contest (screened live from Stockholm tonight) could have any connection with how we might choose to vote in the coming referendum. Surely it’s just a string of naff pop songs stuck together with fake glitter and a lot of false jollity? The songs are uniformly terrible, the show so overproduced it’s impossible not to mock its grandiosity, the idea that it conjures up the meaning of Europe laughably misplaced. But in a programme for the World Service that caught my attention because it sounded so counterintuitive, Nicola Clase, head of mission at the Swedish embassy in London, tried to persuade us otherwise.

In The Swedish Ambassador’s Guide to Eurovision on Wednesday (just days before this year’s jamboree), she argued that it’s worth watching every year — not for the music but to find out the mood in Europe and what’s really going on behind the glacial smiles of those national representatives as they share out their votes.

Take 1995, for instance, when Norway was infamously given ‘nul points’ by its Swedish neighbour. The insult went deep because it was watched by 200 million viewers across the continent, and all the Norwegian papers demanded an official apology from the Swedish ambassador. Or 2011, when Azerbaijan was the host after winning the contest the year before. Its president was told quite sharply by the organisers that if he didn’t clean up his country’s record on human rights the ‘abundance of undisciplined journalists’ who would arrive in the capital to write up the show would be submitting stories about its lack of democracy rather than the music.

Even more revealing perhaps is Britain’s decline and fall as a Eurovision contender. Once upon a time we were often favourites to win but our last winner was Katrina and the Waves in 1997, significantly just after Tony Blair’s victory in the polls. Here, though, a bigger surprise awaited. Because the person who took us back to the contest in the years of New Labour and Cool Britannia was none other than The Spectator’s esteemed editor, Fraser Nelson, who, it turns out, is a dedicated follower of Eurovision. Not only that, he has hidden talents as a pianist, launching into Dana’s ‘All Kinds of Everything’ to remind us that in 1970 she represented Ireland even though she came from the North and lived in Bogside, scene of some of the worst violence in the Troubles. That song, so pure and sweet, Nelson argued, most powerfully illustrates ‘the power of Eurovision to overcome political differences’.

He also reminded us that six years after Katrina’s triumph was the first time ever that Britain got ‘nul points’ for its efforts, the rest of Europe ganging up against us because of our involvement in the Iraq War. Significantly, the winner that year was Turkey, cheered on to win, Nelson suggested, after refusing to let the USA use its airbases. That’s why Vladimir Putin is so keen for Russia to win the contest this year — it has real ‘soft power’. If Moscow gets to host the extravaganza next year, Putin believes it will be a huge propaganda coup, demonstrating that Russia is not just part of Europe, but the leading player within it.

The three-minute pop song has never been more important, said Clase, who believes every politician and diplomat worth their salt should be watching on Saturday night. Meanwhile, how the rest of Europe responds to the UK’s entry might determine what happens in the referendum. Stranger things have happened as a consequence of Eurovision.

If you’re still wondering which way to vote in the political contest, the historian Margaret MacMillan’s new series for Radio 4 might help. It’s a lot less fun than Clase’s romp through Eurovision history but no less revealing. In Europeans: The Roots of Identity (Tuesday mornings) MacMillan asks the question, what does it mean to be European? She began in Rome, seat of empire, believing that to find Europe we have to go back to the imperial past, where worries about an overweening bureaucracy, immigration and a faltering economy were ever-present.

She bought a sandwich from a local market, filled with simmered brisket and chicory, which a food historian revealed would have been part of the imperial diet. ‘Lucky Romans!’ MacMillan declared after taking her first bite. It’s not, though, a food combination that made it through to Vindolanda, which tells us a lot about the way Rome organised itself. Food distribution was part of the imperial administration, a way of imposing control, but how that food was cooked remained strongly local.

Talk to a Bulgarian and a Belgian about what Europe means to them and they will find it very hard to find any common ground, their local differences taking precedence in the context of home. But take them to China and they will immediately feel in some sense that they belong to the same culture. Europe, argued MacMillan, ‘cannot always be expressed, but only felt in some way’.

Next week she goes to Tallinn, capital of Estonia, to find out what it feels like to live on the edge of Europe.

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