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In the first part of this interview with singer/songwriter, writer and activist, Billy Bragg, earlier this week, he had one eye on a contest and another on a triple-threat plan for a much-delayed Australian tour.

Today, in part two, the game gets more serious but nothing is going to quell his optimism.


STIMULATION AND PROVOCATION OF BRITAIN’S OLD GUARD is something of a Billy Bragg staple, even in sport. While he is a dyed-in-the-claret-and-sky-blue fan of West Ham (founded in 1895 as a proper working man’s club at Thames Ironworks), when it comes to his country’s other sporting staple, cricket, Bragg is a declared fan of the biff/boom of the (very) short form.

He says he never had patience for or interest in Test cricket but 20/20 “is like a game show”, and it kind of fits in with the 21st century version of the agit-pop singer who, said in the first part of this interview that he enjoys a bit of social media “shitposting” - though it’s really only shitposting if you’re a trans-phobe or, you know, British political leadership. Or what passes for it.

As we touched on earlier in the week, is it harder to write an incisive political song when the people you are writing about are so much more nebulous than their predecessors, like Margaret Thatcher who served as inspiration and inflammation of the young songwriter four decades ago?

“They are nebulous: we don’t live in such ideological times. The discourse is not as focused as it was,” says Bragg. “It used to be quite focused in three weekly music papers in the UK, and that gave you a means by which to write a song and then come talk about it. When I wanted to talk about belonging and Englishness, I made an album called England, Half English, and I put half the English flag on the cover, because I knew that would allow me to talk about those things in interviews.

“The debate was a lot more biddable in those days. It’s not doable anymore, partly because the media is more diverse and disparate. Now if you want to say those things you put a long post on Facebook. I often use that to try out political ideas, like notions during the lockdown around the common good, and something like I Will Be Your Shield fits into that argument.”

That song appeared on 2021’s The Million Things That Never Happened, an album which talked about what we owe each other more than what we are owed by others, not just in the midst of the plague, but the long-term elevation – since the days of Thatcher – of individuality over community.

“That came in very useful on tour in Brighton – I managed to get away with a UK and Ireland tour, six weeks on the road in between the end of the Delta variant and before the start of the Omicron variant, more by luck than judgement – when there were still restrictions on who could come into gigs,” says Bragg, recalling how he engaged online with people unhappy about having to do lateral flow tests before being allowed in to venues, claiming their individual liberty was been impinged. His response was that the common good was more important as the basis of solidarity.

“My solidarity in particular would be those people who’ve not been able to leave their homes for a couple of years because their immune systems really can’t deal with the threat of the virus. My solidarity is with them rather than some individual who won’t take a lateral flow test and he’s telling me that it’s a form of apartheid,” he says. “So a song like I’ll Be Your Shield or Freedom Doesn’t Come For Free, which is about libertarians, gave me some traction on what was actually happening.”

It turned out that there was some benefit, both for the audience and Bragg in the lunatic fringe protesting.

“When an audience has been shouted at by anti-mandate people outside the gig, they are so fired up when they come in you don’t need much to spark them off. In fact if those fuckers with the placards could come every night it would really fire the gig up. But sadly they all live in Brighton.”

Does he see any sense of solidarity, of community, in Britain again in the post-but-not-really-post-Covid times? Looking around Australia, for example, it is debatable as we sit in pods of people saying it’s all over, people opposing restrictions, people supporting restrictions, people just wanting this over, people looking for someone to blame.

“I think the arc of history is long but it bends towards inclusivity, doesn’t it? So many of the movements that we see out there are about inclusiveness now,” says Bragg, broadening the discussion beyond Covid or Brexit. “I’m expressing my support for the trans and non-binary community, and I’m really amazed by the number of anti-trans activists I run into there who are dissing inclusivity, who see inclusivity as a negative, as a problem, whereas in the World Cup they’re trying to wear armbands to promote inclusivity and make everybody feel part of the whole thing.”

And this is hardly a British phenomenon, as Bragg – who is quite pally with Australia’s indie rock-loving prime minister and rather less chummy with his predecessor – knows very well.

“The nature of solidarity comes out of that urge towards inclusivity, to more people being included, the way in Australia over the last few months since Albo became Prime Minister there seems to have been more inclusivity for the Aboriginal population, or a sense of that, a possibility of that. While under the previous government it was more about who was excluded,” he says.

“I’m not sure it’s a famous saying, it was by guy called [Frank] Wilhoit who said, in order for conservatism to work there have to be people who the law protects but doesn’t restrict, and other people who the law restricts but doesn’t protect. That is the central idea of conservatism, that’s how conservativism works, whether it’s in the UK or Australia or United States of America.

“That’s what we’re fighting against: how do we find a common good that protects everybody, that protects everybody’s rights, that doesn’t rely on excluding those people and making them the focus of our anger, the focus of our ire, the focus of our projected sense of loss – of power or masculinity or whatever.”

Those with a more optimistic turn of mind have looked at the past two years of societies turning away from right wing populism and exclusionary politicking, or in the case of Britain, looking like it’s preparing to at the next opportunity, and seen reason to hope. Societies in culture and politics tend to be cyclical, nothing is locked down, but is it a time to believe we may have progressed or is it merely a lull?

“That’s why they call us progressives, because we are looking to the future, we’re looking to make things better. We call them conservatives because they’re trying to conserve the status quo,” says Bragg. “How many men’s rights activists does it take to change a lightbulb? None, because they don’t like change even if it makes the place brighter. That’s the people we are having to deal with.

“So yeah, I’ve always been a glass half full guy, much to the annoyance of my partner. I don’t wish to suggest that it’s all going to be great, but certainly in the UK more people are starting to articulate now that Brexit was a mistake, that we’ve really messed up here and we need to do something about it. It’s a recognition of the way the world is rather than the way it used to be in the old days. There is no way back to 1950 but there is a way forward to 2050 if we get our arses into gear and do something about the climate.”

In light of frustrations expressed by those demanding welfare and immigration law reform in the USA, and in Australia since the May 2022 election, and those hoping for a Brexit reversal and support for union action in the UK, can we keep relying on progressive parties in opposition living up to something honourable when they are in government? Or is fear still going to rule them?

“It’s not fear that rules people,” he rebuts. “It’s Murdoch.”

Or fear of Rupert Murdoch.

“The Democrats are afraid of Fox News, the Labour Party are afraid of the Sun and the Times and the Mail and the Telegraph, and in Australia it’s the same problem. You’ve got to find people who believe in something,” says Mr Optimism, supporter of the leadership of left-leaning Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who lifted his party’s vote to record levels in 2017 before crashing and burning against Boris Johnson two years later. “I’m not sure what [current more centrist British Labour leader] Keir Starmer believes in but I think Albo is a genuine progressive.

“Whether he’s able to articulate that, we’ll have to wait and see, but like I said, I’m a glass half-full kind of guy. While he is there, I think you all live in a time of possibilities. Not all of those possibilities will be realised and some will be really frustrating, but better we live in that time and be able to try and do those things tend to be where we were before.”

Is it the role of people like Bragg to remind leaders that progressives exist? That yes, you can be fearful of a backlash from the right-wing media, but you can bring people along. Does he, do we, have to keep reminding them?

“I’ve always believed that politics is much important to leave to politicians; it involves other people putting their views across and building consensus around ideas that might take a long time to realise. But that doesn’t mean we are never going to get there,” says Bragg. “Of course we’re going to have to act on the climate. How we do that, when we do that, and whether we do that together, is a very big question mark, but people around the world are aware the climate is changing.

“It’s not like membership of the European Union or what China is going to do next week, or whether Donald Trump gets re-elected, we 100 per cent know what’s going to happen with the climate.”

What’s it going to take then?

“To me it all because back to one thing, accountability: how we hold ourselves to account, how we hold corporations to account, how we hold governments to account. There is not enough of that about. People like Boris Johnson, Donald Trump, and other places working anti-democratically, this is where the challenge is.

“To me, accountability has always been at the heart of socialism. In my country the Labour Party grew out of the unions who were formed in order to have some sort of accountability in the workplace. So it’s not such a huge leap to get to that spot: we all need to be accountable for what’s happening to the climate.”

Looking for a very manageable leap forward then.

For dates and tickets of Billy Bragg’s shows in March and April:


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