The doyen of political protest, Billy Bragg, has added his voice to the cause of Scottish independence. Ahead of a gig in Edinburgh next month, he tells our reporter that the end of Britain could herald a new England led by a centre-left party akin to the SNP
FOR SOME he’s the Tony Benn of rock music, for others he’s the UK’s answer to Bruce Springsteen, and there are those who will forever associate Billy Bragg with 1980s pop protest songs about events such as the miners’ strike during the high-water mark of Thatcherism.
Now the singer-songwriter thinks the prospect of an independent Scotland throws up the chance of a New England – to borrow the title of one of one of his most famous songs from the early 1980s.
Almost a decade ago, English-born Bragg wrote the song Take Down the Union Jack – a typically tubthumping anti-monarchist political number about the end of the British empire – and now says that the only way England can politically “wake up” is if Scotland becomes independent.
Bragg, affectionately known as the Bard of Barking – after the East London borough where he grew up – spoke to The Scotsman ahead of an Edinburgh gig next month, as part of a tour he is presenting to encourage young political bands.
Bragg is now 53 and has an extensive back catalogue that, as one of his songs says, is all about “mixing pop and politics”, such as his version of folk number Which Side Are You On?, which is an ode to the titanic struggle of the miners in the 1984-5 strike.
He has now settled with his family in the Dorset village of Burton Bradstock, a long way from his roots – and, incidentally, is where the sequence of Reginald Perrin walking into the sea in the 1970s TV sitcom The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin was filmed. But any suggestion that the man who helped form Red Wedge – a pro-Labour left-wing collective of musicians in the 1980s that included Paul Weller, Jimmy Somerville, Kirsty MacColl and Tom Robinson – has sold out or even mellowed is dismissed when Bragg enthuses about his current tour, which he says is an attempt to create a “powerful medium for protest” against the cuts from the Tory-led coalition.
Bragg, despite his greying temples, maintains a youthful appearance with sparkling eyes, chisel jaw and a distinctive nose – something he has even mentioned when performing his early 1990s hit Sexuality, which has a line claiming he “looks like Robert De Niro”, to which he adds: “… if he had a big nose and came from Essex.”
When asked if the austerity measures of the Tory-Lib Dem coalition compare to the 1980s and the worst excesses of Thatcherism, he doesn’t hesitate. “Of course, of course,” he says, backing up his assertions with talk about the high youth unemployment and young people being hit hard by tuition fees.
Bragg still knows which side he’s on as he lays into bankers, the far-right British National Party (BNP), and, – perhaps surprisingly – the Labour Party who, he suggests, are “running shy” of the public disquiet and protests such as this week’s high-profile occupation of areas of the City of London by protesters. It’s now 20 years since Bragg tore up his Labour membership card, over then leader Neil Kinnock’s support for the first Gulf War, but he’s quick to insist that he hasn’t given up on the party, saying the relationship between him and Labour is “the same” as when he helped front Red Wedge – the collective that played gigs across the country in the run-up to the UK 1987 general election, spreading an anti-Thatcher message.
There’s a reassurance for Labour that Bragg says he will continue to “support the party when I can” but be “critical when the situation demands it”. This might be a crumb of comfort to Scottish Labourites, following May’s Holyrood elections. But, when we get on to the subject of Scottish independence and the rise and rise of the SNP, Bragg enters territory that might upset some of his old comrades in Labour and on the left.
Nationalism is a subject Bragg has not been afraid to touch on before, and four years ago he even penned an acclaimed book The Progressive Patriot about reclaiming England’s flag of St George from the BNP, whom he spent time campaigning against in East London at the last general election when they unsuccessfully tried to win their first Westminster seat.
Bragg pauses for a moment when asked about the huge tidal change that swept the SNP to an overall majority at Holyrood in May, but it soon becomes clear this socialist views the Scottish Nationalists as a force for good. In his trademark East London brogue, undiminished by his time on the Dorset coast, Bragg enthusiastically declares that England now needs a party like the SNP, a “civic nationalist party” to offer a left-of-centre alternative to voters south of the Border.
The SNP landslide and the now-inevitable referendum on separatism has given Bragg food for thought, and he’s soon waxing lyrical, with the sort of enthusiasm that he once used to talk about causes like the Miners’ Strike and Ken Livingstone’s heroics as leader of the Greater London Council in the early 1980s. Bragg says that the only way England could politically “wake up” would be if Scotland became independent (just a few days ago, a ComRes opinion poll showed UK-wide backing for Scottish independence). He says: “The SNP majority government is really something significant. The SNP is a centre-left party that defeated all the other parties.
“The problem for us from this is that if you’re in England and you want no fees and free prescriptions, who do you vote for? There’s a real problem that’s opening up with that and I worry that the Labour Party will be punished because people won’t vote for it because it hasn’t grasped all this.”
Bragg is seen by many as a quintessentially English radical, but he did write the lyric “ask our Scottish neighbours if independence looks any good” and is full of praise for SNP leader Alex Salmond. Bragg seems more excited by Scotland’s new political landscape than anyone else from south of the Border.
Bragg was always a bit of a trailblazer among alternative and radical singers, so much so that when the daughter of legendary 1930s dustbowl US folk singer Woody Guthrie wanted someone to go through her father’s archive it was Bragg – and not, for example, US music giants Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan – she asked. The result was two albums of Guthrie’s songs – the acclaimed Mermaid Avenue releases back in the late 1990s and early 2000s – recorded by Bragg and US band Wilco.
However, Bragg’s comments about Salmond “putting forward a nationalism that’s inclusive and mature – something that we don’t have in England” – may provoke disdain from some on the English left who have long feared the prospect of Tory domination in Westminster should Scotland gain independence. Bragg says: “There will be a political realignment if Scotland becomes independent. We won’t be British any more. We’ll be English.” But his calls for a party south of the Border in the tradition of the SNP, whom he says have shown the English left how it can be done, is probably the most controversial view offered by this Labour-supporting musician.
“Not an English national party, but a party for England of civic nationalism that puts forward the progressive ideas of the SNP. Scottish independence throws up the possibility of a more progressive England,” he says just stopping short of echoing the “Looking for A New England” lyrics that saw Bragg shoot to fame in 1983 when a young former soldier with a barely disguised East London accent appeared on cult music shows such as Channel 4’s late-night programme The Tube.
Bragg seems willing to talk about Scotland all day and says that he’s always had a positive response at gigs north of the Border. For one of his recent projects, Jail Guitars Doors, which provides instruments to help rehabilitate prisoners, he made a series of visits to Scottish jails, and took part in jam sessions with inmates on rehab programmes.
Before going onto more familiar Bragg territory, with a call to completely nationalise the Royal Bank of Scotland and transform it into an investment bank to help small businesses and first time buyers, he says that the prospect of independence could lead to a “shake-up of the ossified politics of England and the domination of London”.
SNP Westminster leader and referendum campaign director Angus Robertson seized on Bragg’s comments: “These are very welcome, sensible comments from Billy Bragg which recognise the fact that Scottish independence will be beneficial for both Scotland and England, with each nation pursuing the best policies for its citizens while continuing in a social union.”
• Billy Bragg plays Edinburgh’s Queens Hall on November 13 as part of the Left Field in Motion tour with Sound of Rum as support. A new compilation album, Fight Songs, is now available.
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