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A Quietus Interview

A New England? Billy Bragg On The EU And Current Affairs
Joel McIver , June 16th, 2016 08:23

In a ten point agenda, Billy Bragg talks to Joel McIver about Brexit, Trump, Boris and the importance of remaining optimistic amid political chaos

On September 23, the singer-songwriter Billy Bragg releases his 11th studio album, Shine A Light: Field Recordings From The Great American Railroad on the Cooking Vinyl label - although whether it's actually a studio album is debatable, as the 13 cover songs which it contains were recorded in a variety of locations, not many of them resembling a studio. Along with the singer, guitarist and producer Joe Henry, Bragg committed the material to portable hard drive while on a 2,800 mile train journey between Chicago and Los Angeles in March this year.

The great US railroad is the theme of Shine A Light, and while the project might sound on paper like the self-indulgence of an Americana-obsessed Brit of a certain age, the music is anything but.

Haunting, atmospheric and awareness-raising in its celebration of a lost industry and tradition, the album may be romantic but it's also authentic. As with so much of Bragg's work, the political subtext of the songs is clear: in abandoning its first, pioneering transport industry, America has also sacrificed part of its own soul.

Bragg has been a campaigner for dozens of causes since he first entered the limelight in 1983 with his debut album, Life's A Riot With Spy Vs Spy. He's a tissue of contradictions in many ways: a committed socialist who lives in a Dorset village; a successful touring musician who bestrides major stages while his peers from the hard left have drifted to the centre or faded from view; and a man whose music has found a home among mainstream listeners, despite its sometimes abrasive nature. The Bard Of Barking, the Greatest Living Englishman – these nicknames don't sum Bragg up, but they certainly indicate his enduring popularity.

With a profound British identity crisis in the news, and America apparently about to commit suicide, we thought it was high time we asked Bragg for his thoughts on the state of play on 2016...


Where do you stand on the current EU membership debate, Billy?

Billy Bragg: Britain is a great country. We can more or less say what we like, and we can walk down the street without anyone trying to kill us. I know it's tough for some people, but generally we live in a caring society. We live in a great country, but we're no longer a great power. Part of the problem with some elements of the European debate is that they hanker for the days when we were a great power. Those days are gone, and they went a long time ago.

Culturally, we still punch above our weight.

BB: And why do we do that? Because we're in the European Union. Because we're in NATO. Because we've involved ourselves in those multinational forces. Why do you think Churchill wanted us to join the EU? Because after the war they knew that without the British Empire, Britain would not be able to punch above its weight on its own. But whatever happens after June 23, we can't just carry on the way we are: we either get out, which I think will be disappointing, or we get stuck in. There can be no carrying on the way we are, whingeing away from the sidelines. We need to get involved and take responsibility for who we think we are. If we think we're a nation with great ideas, and a nation that wants to make the world a better place, let's commit ourselves and involve ourselves with our European partners.


What's your take on Boris Johnson?

Billy Bragg: Did you know that the Boris bus had 'We give £350m to Europe every week' written on the side, but he's taken it off now and replaced it with 'We give £50m to Europe a day'? I told this to an audience last night and they all laughed. I said, 'No, it's true! It's where we've got to!' It freaked me out, because I was saying this in anger, and they all laughed like it was a punchline. But this is not punchline politics. It horrifies me. It's what they call post-truth politics, where it doesn't matter what you say.

What is the fundamental problem with Boris, as you see it?

BB: People like Boris can't bear the idea of having to sit down with other people and form an agreement. Whatever the issue may be, it seems to me that they can't escape the terrible feeling in the pit of their stomachs that they might be part of somebody else's empire. Until we overcome that old imperial mindset, and accept that we are a great country that gets knocked out in the quarter-finals. That's what happens to us. That's the reality. But at least we fucking qualify!


Should immigration into Britain be capped?

Billy Bragg: I don't think you can. Immigration is incredibly restricted at the moment, and they're still turning up on the beach. It's one of those things you can't do anything about. What you can do is make sure that those people who have refugee status get a fair hearing. You also need to make sure that there are enough resources in a given area to deal with an influx of people, to make sure that the local people don't lose their services as a result of that influx, and really heavily lean on employers to pay the minimum wage, so they can't undercut. If you stopped wages being undercut, and made resources available to communities which are facing large influxes, then I think that it would be more manageable. I think that's the most you can do. Some of that management can be done at the borders. I'm not against that. But the real problem is for people who feel that the things that they rely on to get by - the health service, transport, infrastructure - are not edged out because of that. And I think those feelings are justified: I find it hard to argue against things like that.


What's your take on the first-past-the-post voting tradition?

Billy Bragg: At the moment we've got a government that was only supported by 25 per cent of the electorate. They got 38 per cent of the votes, but only 25 per cent of the electorate. Tony Blair was the same in his last couple of years, so I'm not complaining about [any particular party]. Where I live in Dorset, the Tories have been in power since 1886, and where I come from in Barking, Labour have been in power since 1931, when Barking was cut out of Essex. It's ridiculous! There are definitely Tories in Barking. Some of them are my relatives. And the Labour Party is massive in Dorset: they've got 800 members across the county now. So we need a fair voting system, otherwise people are going to get more and more frustrated.

Will political power still be retained by the current subset of people in a generation or two, do you think?

BB: I'd like to think that in a generation or two we'll have politicians whose life experience reflects that of the people who are voting for them. It can't be good to have privately educated people in so many places of power when only seven per cent of people are privately educated. I'm not saying, take them outside and shoot them. I'm just saying that we need to find a better way to manifest the broader society's aspirations, politically. The key to it has to be some sort of proportional representation, which allows there to be more parties. It's never been clearer than it is now that the Conservatives are definitely two parties. The Labour party has always been two parties, and that's even more visible now. I don't see any reason why, if we had proportional representation, Labour wouldn't divide into a couple of parties, the Tories wouldn't divide into a couple of parties and then they would come together in different ways to bring forward an agenda that has the support of the majority of the people. That's what you want in a democracy.

Trust in politicians is at an all-time low in this country. Can that trust be restored?

BB: Yes, if a politician said "The system by which we elect a government isn't working. Look at the numbers. Eighty per cent of you live in seats that never ever change hands. As a result of that, everyone's working to persuade the 20 per cent, and you're not getting good service. I'm going to change things. I'm going to create a fair voting system that will mean more politicians because you need more representation, and your voice will be heard and your vote will count, and although this may not benefit my party, I trust you, the British people, to vote for what is best for our country, and trust me to be Prime Minister and to do this in my first term. I'm asking you to trust me to deliver the power to have the majority of you to have your voice heard in Westminster." If a politician said that, it would start a process whereby politicians began to trust the electorate, because in some ways it all stems from them not trusting us.

How, exactly?

BB: The MPs' expenses scandal arose because politicians did not trust us to accept that they should be paid at least as much as a school headmaster for the job they do. They thought that we felt that they were such small-minded people that they would [fiddle their expenses], because we didn't respect their ability to do a difficult job. They twisted themselves into a situation where it was only going to look bad. That's where it all stems from: they've got to trust us. If we had proportional representation and there were 60 UKIP MPs, that would be because people voted for 60 UKIP MPs. There's no point in asking for a proper democratic system and then complaining what people vote for.

Will you enter party politics at some point?

BB: No, no. Don't you think there's enough middle-aged white blokes in parliament already? Also, politics is too important to be left to politicians.


Billy Bragg: I think there's something really interesting happening in politics. Left and right still exist, but there's more going on. There's a divide between politicians who offer to manage the economy, like Blair or Cameron or Hillary Clinton, and those who offer to transform society. [The latter is] not always a positive thing. Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders are transformative politicians, but so are Donald Trump and Nigel Farage: they're saying to their electorate, "Enough is enough: the status quo has messed you about, and things have to change". Obviously, within both the managerial and transformative sides there is left and right: the boy Trudeau in Canada is sort of left-ish, but he's also a managerialist. That certainly seems to be the choice that was given to the Labour Party in choosing a leader, and the managerialists were swept away.

What are your thoughts on Jeremy Corbyn?

BB: Very positive. I've rejoined the Labour party, which I haven't done for a long time. Having talked about his agenda, to stand on the sidelines without doing anything would seem a bit churlish.


Billy Bragg: We've heard so much about the American dream: well, Trump is the American nightmare made flesh. All the things about 'the ugly American' that we worry about and which the Americans see in themselves, it's all of that. This is a politics of egotistical display. At least - and it's a big 'at least' - Nigel Farage will address an issue. If we accuse him of being a liar, he won't just say 'I never said that' or just ignore it and go on to the next thing.

So whose fault is Trump?

BB: The Republican Party have nobody to blame but themselves. They've pandered to that no-compromise Tea Party rhetoric, and now it's totally out of their control. Whether we like it or not, we live in a post-ideological world. That's how a Donald Trump can get through. He has no ideology at all: in that sense, he's a bit like Mussolini. I think that ultimately Trump will lose the election and in the process destroy the Republican party - but then I'm an optimist, ha ha ha! So he might not lose. He might be in charge of the largest nuclear arsenal in the world!

Perhaps he'll wake the Republican Party up and make them realise 'We can't have dangerous clowns like this running our party ever again'?

BB: Maybe, but the Republican Party has a libertarian thread running through it that makes it hard for them to make a reasonable case against him. The trouble with the libertarians is that they think that freedom is made of one thing: liberty. It's actually made of three things, and if you don't have all three of them, you're not really free. Obviously liberty is the first one: the right to say what you want, as long as you're not being abusive. It's the right to express your opinion and the right to live your life as you see it. Then there's equality: the right of everybody to be able to do that, and for their rights to be respected. Liberty without equality is just privilege. Thirdly, there's what the French called fraternité, which translates as 'brotherhood' but for which a better translation would be 'community'. You have to recognise your responsibility to your community for your actions. Liberty doesn't mean that you are not held accountable. Without accountability, there can be no freedom. I know it seems like a paradox.

Your thoughts on Bernie Sanders?

BB: Bernie Sanders is phenomenal: the fact that in America people will give so much support and time to a self-declared socialist, even a Democratic socialist, is a real change. It's not because Sanders is particularly charismatic or because his policies are amazing: it's because the American people recognise that the system is broken, and that it's not delivering. Going for constant growth is not actually delivering a decent standard of living and the prospect of your children having a better life than you do. That is the key thing that politics needs to deliver: a better life for your children. That's why people are taking their lives in their hands and crossing the Mediterranean and the English Channel. That's what they're looking for. They're not coming to steal your job, or to live on benefits - like the famous Schrödinger's Immigrant, who lives on benefits and steals your job at the same time. That would be funny if it wasn't a fucking truism.


Are you confident that Britain will eventually become a more tolerant place?

Billy Bragg: [swigs water from glass, places it on table] Is that glass half empty or half full?

It's half full.

BB: Okay. If you can't see that the glass is half full, you can never be a socialist. You have to believe in the goodness of the majority of people to be a socialist. You have to believe that if the majority of people had their way, they would make a society that would be fair for everyone. If you don't believe that, and if you think that the glass is always half empty, then you're never going to have that sensibility. And it's tough. I've felt for quite a while now that the true enemy to people who want to make the world a better place is not conservatism or capitalism, it's cynicism. When I say that, I mean our own cynicism: our own sense that nothing will ever change, that nobody gives a fuck and that it's all going to hell in a handcart.

Do you ever have those moments?

BB: Of course. I mean, I voted Liberal Democrat in 2010. But in the end, you only have to look at the front of the Daily Mail to know that that's how they want you to think. They want you to think that no-one else gives a shit, and that no-one else is interested in your little ideas. To give in to your own cynicism is to give in to that, and I must stress for your readers that I'm not talking about doubt. Doubt is the most important of all human failings. Never trust anyone who has no doubts. And I'm not talking about scepticism either: scepticism can be a healthy thing. You can have an argument with someone who's a sceptic. When I say 'cynic', I mean someone who has given up, and they want you to give up too, so it makes them feel better about themselves. I don't have time for those people in my life any more. I bump into them from time to time, and they are incapable of seeing that the glass is half full. It's not the basis of a political ideology, but you've got to start somewhere, and it's as good a place to start as any, from that premise. If you can see that, you can build on that. Without it, you're on your own, mate. You really are.

How do you define yourself these days?

BB: I'm a progressive, which means someone who wants society to be reordered so that everybody has the means to reach their full potential. That's idealistic, I know, but it's better to have that idea than the idea of a vanguard cadre of political ideologues who are gonna solve everything. I've seen those people - and they're boring as fuck.

Shine A Light: Field Recordings From The Great American Railroad, the new album by Billy Bragg and Joe Henry is out via Cooking Vinyl on September 23