HIGH ON AN EMPIRE: BILLY BRAGG ON £.S.D. AND INCHING TOWARDS EMPATHY


Photo by Jill Furmanovsky


Songs? He’s got ‘em. Politics? He’s got ‘em too. Vaccines? Definitely got ‘em. And, finally, borders open to gigs mixing pop and politics? He’s got ‘em now. Time to talk to Britain’s folk/rock/skiffle/Leftist laureate.


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IT’S EARLY IN THE MORNING, yes, too early for dumb, but Billy Bragg, I beg your indulgence.


I know you have a new album out this week – the full-bodied and surprisingly emotional The Million Things That Never Happened (available tomorrow). And that your Covid-delayed 2020 Australian tour – Three nights in the one city! Three different parts of his career each night!! – is, Strummer-willing, now happening from mid-January 2022 (though who can say yea about WA?).


We all now know that you will be the first international judge of the Australian Music Prize (the winner announced in early March). And at least one of us knows that this story is only the first part of a series from this interview (because Lord knows how you can talk! And who wants to waste that?).


But the only question that matters right now is this: if there are 1760 yards in a mile and five fluid ounces in a gill, how thick is Boris Johnson’s skull?


“That’s a very good question. Very good question,” nods the white-whiskered, sad-eyed but smiling man sitting in front of a camera in Dorset. “There was a headline yesterday in the New York Times, ‘Britain to return to the imperial system’, and I thought, you’re right there mate: sending an aircraft carrier to the South China Sea, bringing the Commonwealth back to the Empire.


“It will be Empire Day soon and we’ll all get a mug and spoon and we’ll march around the playground waving a Union Jack and colour the map in red.”


While we can, and do, laugh at the buffoonery in gestures like the British PM’s return to an archaic system of weights and measures, when, as the singer points out you've always been able to buy a pint of beer, Bragg knows that like a Queensland senator cosplaying being a coal-smudged miner, there’s a lot more – and a lot less – behind such politics.


“It’s the idea that somehow that notion of measurement and time – pounds, shillings and pence – is better because it’s traditional. At the same time, economically they are trashing all the real traditions, the working traditions, the community traditions, in the pursuit of profit. It’s window dressing the Tories are offering older people, like me, to make them feel nostalgia,” says Bragg, who will turn 64 in December.


“It would be laughable if it wasn’t underpinned by a kind of nasty, insular attitude to people from other places. It’s a pernicious idea that we’re going back to how things used to be. It’s not only in the UK either: you see it in the United States of America, there are elements of it in Australian politics, the Canadian election had a party that push the same kind of ideas that we would associate with the [populist/racist] UK Independence Party.”


It may sound like a rejection of globalisation from UKIP or People’s Party Of Canada or The National Party, except for the fact that these politicians aren’t just funded by, but are very much in favour of multinational capitalism. It’s just the world, the people, around them they don’t like.


“The people who want pounds, shillings and pence and ‘English’ weights and measures very often think there are only two genders in the world. It’s a mindset and one that doesn’t take on board that things change, and change constantly,” says Bragg. “You want to create a society that is inclusive, as well as being cohesive. And you can’t have a cohesive society if you’re trying to marginalise people within it.”


In a live concert online to launch the new album, Bragg joked that he is at the age where he remembers his albums by their colours (Talking With The Taxman is the “blue album”; Life’s A Riot is the “orange album”). It made me think that the “socialist red album” was 2002’s England, Half English, a record whose theme remains at the centre of national discussion, and most of our interviews for the past two decades: identity, unity, community, past and future entwined.


It’s something that shows up again in the new album’s 10 Mysterious Photos, a jaunty old/new folk song cowritten with his son, Jack, which begins “The angry old men say it was better back when/We used to keep the aspidistra flying/Now it may be the case that we can’t change our fate/but there is surely no harm in trying?”



While it may be about defining English characteristics and history, rather than, say the Anzac legacy so beloved of Federal education ministers, we all know that contested ground don’t we Alan Tudge?


“It doesn’t go away. Brexit in many ways has made it worst, because Brexit was about trying to, for the Tories, re-establishing the British imperial identity at a time when the Scots and the Irish and to some extent the Welsh are looking to escape from the notion of Britishness, and have their own identity,” says Bragg. “In that situation, the vacuum where Englishness is, is not only ridiculous, it’s also very troubling because there are 56 million of us and we are the most multicultural nation in Europe, never mind in the UK. And if we can’t come up with an inclusive sense of what it means to be English then we have real trouble.”


As the author of the 2005 book, The Progressive Patriot, Bragg is used to defending the idea of patriotism for an artist and activist on the Left, basing his case for a new type of patriotism on the idea that he loves his country’s values and the ideas that it aspires to, rather than the souvenir shop symbols beloved by the Right. And no, he doesn’t accept the argument that adopting patriotism is more identity politics.


“As if class isn’t an identity,” he says. “Especially now when often when people are talking about class, and how they are marginalised, how they need to get their pounds, shillings and pence back, they mean the white working class. But the working class in Britain is multicultural.”


The standard and tedious line here, too easily fallen into by the cliché mongers, is to talk about Billy Bragg as angry. As still angry. Because, as Yola discussed here a few months ago to talk about any of this division, whether you are a woman, a person of colour, younger or older, someone outside the middle and upper classes, is to be characterised – and in effect “othered” – as angry.


“They say angry, but I’m not angry; I’m concerned. I’m trying to make sense of shit,” is how the man himself puts it. "That’s what I have always done on my records, whether it’s relationships or the politics of the world. I personally think that once this [Covid, Brexit etc] is over, it will be the arts that will help people come to terms with what happened during the pandemic. It’s that that is going to help us deal with a sense of loss that we are all going to have at the other end of this.”


As someone who was energised into politics by the late ‘70s’ Rock Against Racism movement, and whose examination of a national identity was fired by the election of racist councillors elected under the banner of the British National Party, Bragg argues he may have picked up some of these cultural trends a little earlier than less attuned journalists and politicians. Much the same could be said now, as he explained in an interview with me early last year with a movement he attributes to a much younger generation of Left activists, accountability.



“Obviously, that plays into the pandemic and it’s given me a broader scope to try and articulate those ideas. Then on top of that, what’s really come forward since the last proper album, since Tooth & Nail, is my deep understanding that the currency of music is empathy,” he goes on to say. “What we’re trying to give people is a sense of community, and that they are not alone. That they are not the only person in the world who feels this way, that there are other people out there who also are concerned about these things.


“So when they listen to music they get something from it rather than just the adrenaline rush of the sound: they are almost getting, if you like, an emotional cuddle, an arm around them saying, look mate, we’ve all been there. People need that, particularly at the moment.”


I tell him that he must’ve been reading my notes where I had suggested that what this new album offers is pointed rebuttal of the rubbish and lies, but in a way that is more likely to wrap around an arm around us than push us away.


“It’s always been like that, but it’s been subconscious. It’s not a political thing, it’s all music,” he says. “Whoever you go and listen to [at a gig], if you’re coming out with an endorphin high it’s because you’ve been there, you’ve heard your favourite song sung by the person who performed it, you’ve heard a thousand other people singing your favourite song, and it makes you realise that, wow, I’m not alone in this sphere. I am part of something bigger than my little, individual self.”


There are not many places where you can get that, he argues. Maybe at the footy, maybe in church (“maybe that’s why they sing in church”) but no matter how dependent we became on Zoom and concerts from someone’s living room, you sure as hell can’t get it online.


“And what that is, is empathy, rather than what people in my neck of music would like to say is the power to change the world. It’s not really,” Bragg says somewhat heretically for those who are still waiting for music to provide the great leap forward. “Music can move your emotions, thankfully, gratefully, but it has no real agency to change the world and you shouldn’t try and tell people that. It’s not fair.


“You can put the responsibility onto people to change the world, if that’s what they want to do, and fire up their activism while you’re doing it so they go out there and are able to keep their cynicism at bay.”


And that’s not something you can measure by the pound.


The Million Things That Never Happened is out on October 29.


Billy Bragg will play: Freo Social, Fremantle, Jan 14-16; The Gov, Adelaide, Jan 20-22; Enmore Theatre, Sydney, Jan 27-29; The Forum, Melbourne, Feb 2-4; The Tivoli, Brisbane, Feb 8-10; The Opera House, Wellington New Zealand, Feb 13-15; Brue Mason Centre, Auckland, Feb 18; Town Hall, Christchurch, Feb 19.