- 20 Dec 19
To celebrate his 62nd birthday, we're revisiting Billy Bragg's 2019 interview with Hot Press. Back in May, he talked Brexit, Boris, Stormzy, Northern Ireland with Stuart Clark.
Forget Andrew Marr, Emily Maitlis and Fiona Bruce; if you want to burst a Brexiteer’s hot air balloon, let Billy Bragg ask them a few hard questions.
“Boris Johnson, Farage, Rees-Mogg… I’d wipe the floor with all of them because beneath the bluster, their arguments don’t stack up,” asserts the Bard of Barking as we sit down to discuss The Three Dimensions Of Freedom, his short, sharp polemic, which kicks off Faber Social’s new series of political pamphlets.
Needless to say, Bragg has been inspired – “and profoundly fucking depressed,” he adds with a sigh – by events on the other side of the Atlantic.
“Yeah, part of the reason I wrote the book is because I think Trumpism and the normalisation of the bigoted language commonly used online is coming to the UK,” he resumes. “Only today, Ben Shapiro’s been interviewed on the BBC for the first time. Andrew Neill made him look a complete fool but, even so, they had him on. You’ve got Carl Benjamin, who made his name abusing women during the Gamergate scandal, now making rape jokes about female MPs. A female MP was murdered just a couple of years ago in this country. You’ll notice that Boris Johnson hasn’t apologised for his letterbox burqa slur – and was cleared by the Conservative Party of any wrongdoing. I wanted to push the idea of freedom being more than just the right to say whatever you like to whomever you like, whenever you like with no comeback. Because if that’s freedom then Donald Trump’s Twitter feed is the greatest expression of liberty that’s ever existed.”
While your David Dukes and Richard Spencers clearly believe every vile world they spew, there are people like Ann Coulter, Jordan Peterson and Paul Joseph Watson who appear to be in it for the money they get from all those clicks and views.
“Yes, there is an element of that but it’s like saying, ‘Someone pumped sewage through your letterbox, but do they really believe in it?’” Bragg reflects. “Whichever it is, there’s shit in your hallway and you’ve got to shut the letterbox. Jordan Peterson says that he believes in free speech. He doesn’t really because free speech not only involves accountability, but also a recognition of equality and everybody else’s rights. When you’re making statements designed to marginalise particular minorities, you’re using liberty to close down freedom. It’s the opposite of emancipating people and it needs to be stridently called out.”
Asked whether Danny Baker’s royal baby gorilla pic makes him a racist or a fucking eejit, Bragg shoots back: “There’s no way you can say it isn’t a racist trope. I don’t think the banter defence really stands up. What I do respect is that he’s really gone out of his way to apologise. Today, he wrote a very long thread of Twitter apology. You can feel there’s a bit of anger because of what’s happened to him, but I would accept it as genuine. I’ve not heard a single mea culpa from Boris Johnson who’s not being held accountable by the mainstream media and acting with impunity. By the end of the year, you could have President Trump meeting Prime Minister Boris Johnson. That is much more dangerous.”
Looking towards 2020, is it going to take another rich old white man to get the current rich old white (albeit with a strange orange hue) man out of the White House?
“Biden? Yeah, possibly. You can’t rely on Trump to say something stupid and not get re-elected because he’s already said so much stupid stuff. It’s like Brexit, really, in that the parameters of how politics work seem to have been broken. What I’m encouraged by, in relation to the US, is the amount of mainstream support someone like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is getting. She’s a mainstream figure now who’s happy to declare herself a socialist. There’s a sea change right there. She’s getting young people fired up about politics again. Perhaps that’ll be the silver lining to Trump.”
An even bigger curveball this year is the coming out of leftfield of Greta Thunberg.
“Her whole approach to the issue is really, really good,” he nods approvingly. “Her ability to stand there and look grown-ups in the eye and challenge them. They don’t know how to deal with it. She can’t be easily dismissed. The school strikes are brilliant as well; the strikes are their Rock Against Racism. And more power to them!”
Although not as draconian as Northern Ireland’s abortion laws, Alabama’s new Human Life Protection Act looks like the prelude to Roe vs. Wade being reopened.
“It’s hard not to see it as white men trying to keep hold of their dominant position in society. If it’s not women they’re attempting to subjugate, it’s people of colour. In Britain, you’ve had the Windrush scandal and the pitiful government response to the Grenfell fire. Is May really any better than Trump? Probably not.”
Those two outrages were the catalyst for Stormzy’s #grime4Corbyn campaign, which delivered a record youth turnout at the last UK general election.
“It’s significant that it’s grime because it’s representing black youths, many of whom are still marginalised,” Bragg proffers. “Grime has the edge, which has been lost in mainstream music. I’m also a big fan of Dave – he’s using his music to be smart, funny and express the anger of his generation. Just like punk did.”
It turns out that Billy and myself share the same Political Awakening Day.
“You were at the Rock Against Racism gig in Brixton that The Clash headlined? Ah, so you’ll know how unbelievably fucking powerful it was. A hundred thousand kids like us who cared about this shit. Tom Robinson sang ‘Glad To Be Gay’. Some of the guys around us were kissing. I’d never seen out gay men before, and realised they were on this march because the fascists were against anyone who was in any way different. That was my political awakening, but my real education was the 1984 mining strike. The country was as divided as it is now with Brexit, which is why in ’85 the likes of me, Weller and The Communards started Red Wedge. We did Red Wedge in Northern Ireland at the height of The Troubles. You’d roll into Derry or Belfast and just sense the sectarianism. The gigs were always great, though. We played the Ulster Hall the night Margaret Thatcher resigned. You can imagine what that was like; everyone just went crazy. There were people dancing in the streets. It was one of the great honours of my career that I was in Belfast the night Thatcher resigned. It was so brilliant!”
The New IRA said in a statement that Brexit has made it easier for them to recruit members. Is talk of hard borders and removing the backstop playing into dissident Republican hands?
“Yeah, in the sense that a No Deal Brexit puts a question mark over the peace that’s been afforded by the Good Friday Agreement. It must in some ways validate those recalcitrant republicans who’ve said all along that, ‘We’re going to be betrayed’ – ‘Well, here’s the betrayal!’ You could see how they’d use that to recruit these young men, and they do seem to be very young. Whether it’s Lyra or a copper who’d been shot, the return of firearms to the streets of Northern Ireland is incredibly disturbing. “In a way,” he continues, “it’s history coming back to bite the UK in the ass. I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s the Irish border that saves us from Brexit. The Troubles were horrible for the communities in Northern Ireland, but it had ramifications in England as well. I’m hoping that everyone’s going to look at that and think, ‘No, really can’t take that chance.’”
What were Billy’s thoughts on the ‘armed struggle’ that took place in the ‘70s and ‘80s when bringing about something like the Good Friday Agreement seemed impossible?
“To be perfectly honest with you, I wasn’t a huge fan. I’ve never been a revolutionary socialist in that sense. I felt there had to be another way of dealing with what was a civil rights issue. When I joined the British Army, I told them I wouldn’t go to Northern Ireland, so the guy recruiting me put me in one of the Irish regiments that never went there. That changed after I’d left, but that’s why I didn’t serve there.”
Most of the squaddies I encountered at checkpoints were scared-out-of-their-wits 18-year-olds who’d joined the army to escape the horrors of long-term unemployment in the likes of Scunthorpe.
“That’s who they were,” he nods. “I did basic training with them. You’ll never ever find me dismissing squaddies as violent meatheads. They’re guys who were just looking for a way out of a dead end town. What you don’t want to do then is put them on the streets of a different city armed to the teeth and given licence to intimidate the population there. That’s not what they joined for; they joined to fight other soldiers in a war, preferably in Germany in a tank like they’d seen in films. They weren’t even remotely trained for the policing element of it. The hostility between them and the civilians; they didn’t know how to deal with it.”
I run the risk of Billy Bragg fans giving me Chinese burns and wedgies if I don’t ask him about his career-spanning July 29-31 residency in Whelan’s.
“I love the three night, different albums concept,” he concludes. “One, it keeps it really interesting for me because I play a lot of songs I haven’t done in a while and I have to construct the narrative to the set in a totally different way. If you’re doing normal one-night stands, by the time you get to the end of the tour you’ve got it down pat. You pick a few things out of that day’s newspaper, but really, like an actor or a stand-up, you’re hitting your marks. The Whelan’s shows will have to be constructed differently because some of the people will be going to all three. I’ve just been in Minneapolis and Chicago for a week each, and it’s a completely different way of touring. Waking up every day in the same bed is so much lower impact for both me and the environment. It’s a really good format, which I’m looking forward to bringing to Dublin.”