John Harris

Journalist & Author

The Rolling Stones’ guide to world politics

From the Iraq war to the financial crisis, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards have a song that seems to fit the occasion

As was reported yesterday, among the tonnes of leaked papers about the Israel-Palestine conflict, there lurks a particularly remarkable memo from September 1999. It offers advice about Palestinian negotiating tactics, and suggests adopting an approach recommended by the Rolling Stones in 1969. From the top, then: “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes you might find you can get what you need.”

Mick Jagger and Keith Richards will doubtless be thrilled with their new role as geopolitical gurus – but their songs have, on the odd occasion, dealt with such topics as a matter of deliberate intent. In the wake of the Gulf war, they released a single titled Highwire, pointing out how the US had once aided Saddam Hussein; on 2005’s A Bigger Bang, there was a piece about the Bush administration called Sweet Neo Con (it rhymed “certain” with “Haliburton”).

True to the spirit of the aforementioned memo, here are four Stones songs with completely unintended messages about war, peace and world affairs . . .

Tony Blair, the Iraq war, and the views of the attorney general

The Last Time, 1965

Thanks to the Chilcot inquiry, we now know Lord Goldsmith advised that invading Iraq without a second resolution would be illegal, but that Blair thought his views merely “provisional”. Shades, perhaps, of this early Stones toe-tapper: “I told you once and I told you twice/ But you never listened to my advice . . .”

Extraordinary rendition

Dirty Work, 1985

The Stones predict contracted-out torture: “Let somebody do the dirty work/ I never see no grease on you baby/ Never roll your sleeves up, do you, never baby/Let somebody do the dirty work/ Do it all, do it all for free/ While you’re out having all the fun/They’ll take the blame when the trouble comes.”

The Non-Aligned Movement

Sittin’ on a Fence, 1967

While conflicts rage and the big powers square up to each other, the 118 member countries of the NAM want no part of it. So, think of such noble nations as Belarus, India, Haiti and the Maldives, while humming this Jagger/Richards throwaway: “I’m just sittin’ on a fence/ You can say I got no sense/ Trying to make up my mind/ Really is too hard to find/ So I’m sittin’ on a fence.”

Why finance capital is ultimately king

You Got the Silver, 1969

Why do the banks get away with murder? Why does no one ever make a move on offshore tax havens? Over to Richards: “You got my heart, you got my soul/ You got the silver you got the gold/ You got the diamonds from the mine/ Well that’s all right, it’ll buy some time.” This is what all western governments believed until autumn 2008. Doh!

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