Billy Bragg: UK Euro-referendum is ‘worst aspect of Little Englander mentality’

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In a wide-ranging interview, Billy Bragg talks about power and accountability in Brussels, English identity, Scottish independence, immigration, the youth vote, and how the European Commission should buy up the Daily Mail and use it to print facts about the EU.

Billy Bragg is a left-wing, half-English singer-songwriter whose first book, The Progressive Patriot, was published in 2006.   

He was talking to EurActiv's senior journalist, Arthur Neslen.

To read a report based on this interview, click here.

You’ve described yourself as a progressive patriot. Do you also see yourself as a European?

I do, yes. My father had to wear a uniform because of troubles in Europe. My grandfather didn’t – he couldn’t fight in the war – but his life was changed by that too. I’ve been fortunate that I never had to do that, and if sharing some sovereignty with our European neighbours means that my son never has to do that, then I’m happy to make that sacrifice of sovereignty.

Whenever the issue of British identity is raised in the UK these days – particularly in England…

The nationalism we have in England is not civic, in the way it is in Scotland and Wales. Plaid Cymru and the Scottish National Party are broadly progressive parties that are open to everyone. The British National Party isn’t. So my analysis is that this is an English problem. People don’t flip out when they see a Scottish flag on the back of a white minivan. But if you see an English flag, you might think to yourself: 'Who’s driving this?' I think the failure of the left to engage in the politics of identity has created a vacuum, which the right and far-right are only too happy to occupy.  I don’t see why we should give them the freedom to dictate who does and doesn’t belong.

Would you like the Labour Party to take a stronger line on the ‘in/out’ referendum issue? There’s been some talk of the party trying to outflank the Tories on this.

It is not even in the top ten of the voting public’s concerns. The reason the Conservative party is offering a referendum is because Rupert Murdoch, the Barclay Brothers and Lord Rothermere want a referendum. The CBI doesn’t want it. Cameron clearly doesn’t really want it. Everyone recognizes that it’s an expression of the worst aspects of the ‘Little Englander’ mentality, and I think that it is an English thing as well.

There are issues that I have with the EU. One is the lack of democratic accountability in the decision making process, and the disconnect between the Parliament and the Council of Ministers. That needs to be resolved. I’d like to see an end to governments like Great Britain’s being able to veto cuts on bankers' bonuses.  It seems to me that the EU is a rational response to globalisation - not necessarily the euro, which is a separate issue – but we need to create a Europe for people rather than one for corporations.

How worried are you that UKIP will be very successful in the next EU elections?

Elements within any society will always be resistant to change and nobody asked us about the changes brought by globalisation. UKIP and the far-right only focus on the immigration aspect of that. You never hear them arguing about the casualisation of labour, the ability of corporations to avoid paying taxes, and the mass movement of people. All of these are part of the mass globalisation of capital. Immigration can be a problem for some people.

Why?

Well, I come from a place called Barking and Dagenham, which has the lowest house prices in the whole of London. As a result, everyone coming to work in London – whether from the UK, Europe or elsewhere in the world – comes to live there. That puts huge pressure on all the borough’s resources. Unless a government recognizes that, and gives us more resources to deal with that influx, people have genuine issues to talk about - the viability of their social services is at stake when people are coming in.

I think that immigration broadly benefits us, but some areas undoubtedly have a lot of pressure put on them. Barking and Dagenham is one of them. I’d like to see the rest of London recognize that and help to deal with this, by building more houses, schools, and transport, and have more doctors in more hospitals, and take a greater share of the burden in these changes.  

The concerns that people have around these issues I think are genuine, but they can’t be answered by voting in a load of fascists. If you threw every non-English person out of the borough it wouldn’t bring Henry Ford back to Dagenham, and that’s what people need there. When I was growing up, 40,000 people worked at Fords. Now it’s a tenth of that.

But in that way, the borough could absorb waves of immigration. When I was a kid, I remember there were Irish people down our street working at the car factory. Then they moved off somewhere, and it was all people from the Caribbean. Then, they moved off somewhere and it was people from the Indian subcontinent. The car factory has gone now and that whole process has ground to a halt. Fords were able to go somewhere else because of globalisation. House prices in the rest of London shot up because the city became the globalised financial capital of Europe. And free movement of people in the European Union has allowed more people to come. These are all aspects of globalisation and the European Union is a response to globalisation.

Would you like to see the EU taking a stronger stand on things like Schengen – the bloc’s open borders policy – which is now under attack?

We are between a rock and a hard place. We don’t want to see a ‘Fortress Europe’ close its doors to the world, not least because we are an ageing society and we need young people to come in, work and pay taxes to support our pensions. And people who live in the poorer parts of the world, of course, they’re going to send their best to somewhere where a week’s wages is a year’s wages.

As my mum used to say about immigrants: “If there was somewhere in the world I could go where I knew that you and your brother would have a better chance to survive, I would do everything in my power to get you there.” That’s all these people want… although she did get involved in complaining about a mosque at the end of our road but that was only because there was nowhere to park on Fridays. She signed a petition. I said ‘Mum…’ She said: ‘You try parking around here on a Friday it’s worse than the rowing club’. There’s a rowing club next to the park. She did tell the BNP to clear off when they tried to canvas her. She said: ‘Have you seen this name? [Bragg]’ They said: ‘Are you his Mum?’ She said: ‘Yeah’.

But is the retreat from the open borders ideal of Schengen helping the far-right?

Well, obviously nationalists rely on borders. Borders are becoming increasingly porous for commerce, tourism and work. I have got a brother who was working in Germany in the eighties because there was no work in London. He decided to go and work there. The ability to do that is a positive thing.

It always seemed to me that bigotry is very simplistic. It’s people who want to see the world in ways that aren’t complex or ambiguous. ‘Us and them’ is a rock that they cling to, despite all the evidence otherwise.  The nationalism that we seem to have in England is a belligerent nationalism, rather than a civic nationalism. Of the SNP and the BNP; which is really the nationalist party?

How important is it that European citizens - particularly young people - vote in the next elections?

I think it is very important. I don’t buy the Russell Brand thing [a British comedian who spoke out against voting] because my experience in the 1980s, of talking to the SWP - who were always having a go at us in Red Wedge because we were telling people to vote Labour - is that it is not either/or. If you come to the ballot box with me when it’s time, I’ll come to the streets with you when it’s time. If you tell me that the revolution is going to come, well, great. What will we do in the meantime while we’re waiting? We might as well take what opportunities we have to organise.  As Winston Churchill said, democracy is the worst system apart from all the other systems that have been tried.

So if people said to you: ‘What’s the point? The EU is just a bunch of unaccountable toothless bureaucrats…’

Well, there is a case that there is a democratic deficit. I would like to see the European Parliament have more teeth, really. Still, the levers of power are really in the hands of the Council of Ministers and I think the people need to be in control, rather than the governments of nations.

Another criticism is that it is institutionally neo-liberal and promoting an austerity agenda.

Yes and no. It is also trying to curb bankers' bonuses, isn’t it? And it is interesting to see that one of the things the conservatives really hate about the European Union is all the rights that the British people get because of it. The contradiction in the EU is that it supplies a lot of accountability than we don’t get from our government - which is much more neo-liberal than the consensus in Europe. As a result of that, workers rights, individual rights and the rights of minorities have all been marginalized. It has actually been the legislation of the European Union that has held up the rights of minorities, workers and women. That’s what they are complaining about: the ‘red tape’ that keeps them clean. 

So where does the ‘Little England’ mentality that you talk about come from? Why is it so easy to tap into that?

Because the left is colour-blind. It doesn’t do flags. It has no point of connection with that debate whatsoever. You know, I got a lot of shit from people when I was recording ‘Half-English’ That song ends with me singing: 'My country, oh my country, what a beautiful country you are.’ Leftist friends of mine said ‘You’re being ironic, right?’ But I said: ‘No, I do love my country.’ But on the other hand, there is a daily diet of xenophobia from our press.

The Daily Mail, the Times, the Telegraph, the Daily Express are just pouring scorn on anything that is not British. And whilst not being totally blind to the fact that the definition of what is and isn’t British is constantly changing. Mo Farah is British. Maybe Scotland isn’t British. All these things are moving – maybe glacially, but movement is happening.  The definition of what constitutes Great Britain changes every century since its inception - from 1707 to 1808 to 1922, and it may well change again in 2014, with the [Scottish] referendum.

Do you hope that it does?

I think the implications for England will be very interesting. If we are ever going to get real democratic reform, it would have to be something as profound as Scottish independence.  If we need to set up a new parliament, no one is going to go for a first-past-the-post system and an appointed House of Lords.

Apart from the European elections, I don’t get a vote anywhere that’s proportionate. And that is ridiculous in a modern society, isn’t it? The Scots and Welsh do. The Londoners do. But I don’t - and I represent the majority of people in England. So our own democratic deficit needs to be addressed, and Scottish independence could be a catalyst for that.

So if you were a Scot would you vote for independence?

It is a matter for the Scots and I wouldn’t want to presume to tell them what to do. But I recognize that there are interesting and far-reaching ramifications for England as well. Some of those ramifications could be positive.

If you could give one bit of advice to the European Commission, what would it be?

Buy the Daily Mail. Take it over. Install a new editor and start putting facts about the European Union in there. The EU is not wholly good or wholly bad. It has a great potential and it does occasionally do amazing things, but like any huge bureaucracy it often pulls in two or three different directions. Great empires have always thrown up huge bureaucracies. It’s the only way you can run them. An empire like the EU is really not an empire at all but a collection of independent nation states together. It is bound to need a lot of rules.

But to expect things to happen exactly the same in London as they do in Athens is tough, because it certainly does not happen in the USA. The American federal model is pulling in different directions, almost to the point of stasis. This is a symptom of the decline of western dominance, as is how we deal with the rise of China, India, Brazil or an independent Russia. The EU and the USA have to become more cohesive, internally, if they are to respond.

Well the US has a common language, a common political system that was created through war 150 years ago, and it has a more integrated market and complete free movement of peoples. There are a lot of differences…

Yes, but my point is that even with all that integration, they are still pulling in opposite directions. Even if the law said that things should happen in Seattle and Miami in exactly the same way, people would still complain and push back against that. So you can’t expect a model like the European Union – which has none of those things – to immediately behave as a federal union.

Do you have any thoughts on the federalist issue?

Yeah, I would like to see an end to tax havens in Europe, and an end to European nations running tax havens around the world. That has to happen at a European level. Us pulling out of the EU would only leave us with a bigger imbalance of financial services in the UK. We have a lot to learn from European models of commerce, I think.

Do you speak any foreign languages?

I speak a tiny bit of French. When I was ordering my breakfast this morning, to start with, I was really struggling, but by the end of a croque monsieur and a cup of coffee, I was able to order one with an egg in French. But yeah, I only have schoolboy French.

Despite having ‘relations with girls from many nations’ as you once sang?

That’s true, but that’s an international language that knows no borders.

How optimistic are you these days?

Well, I have to be optimistic. I’m a socialist and I believe that if the majority of people get a say we will have a better society so I have to be a glass-half-full type of person.

The real enemy is not conservatism. It is cynicism. And not the cynicism of the Daily Mail – that’s their job, that’s what they do – it’s our own cynicism. And we have to fight that as best we can. There is a shedload of it on the internet. Every time you stick your head above the turret, there are always people throwing stuff at you.  But in my experience the only real antidote to cynicism is activism. I do what I can to push that along. A lot of it has to do with accountability and the big idea in the 21st century will be: how do we hold the bastards to account. You can fill in your own bastards.

External links: 

Billy Bragg: Official website

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Comments

Nick T's picture

Billy Bragg says 'Buy the Daily Mail' - I can see an advertising campaign based on that!!!

Hadrian's picture

Oeat post Billy. Of course,
Britian has more tax Havens, than the whole of Europe put together. Yes they should be abolished.

That aside. you answered some great questions greatly. and as long as we keep giving a shit, then things will be better.

Though the powers of Britian are huge, and politics is only a puppet to these powers..
Thats how they can build a Nuclear power station, without a public referendum, and absolutely no debates by the BBC or most UK media..

Its too difficult to overthrow these powers, for they have all of Britians money, stashed in these havens..

and im not talking about any petty thief of a great trainrobbery, who gets locked up for 30 years..Im talking about Lord Mc Alpine, Belfour, to name a few..Laing's and Beatty, or however the want to change thier names..These are the lords, who designate building and arms contracts for the UK..And they take trillions in just a generation..

In the meantime, we have to put pressure on these people to invest into Britian, as equally as the Skandanaivians, Germans and rest of the EU, and so far, Britian is still only 30% of the best countries in the EU as far as wages go.

New technologies in the UK are so poor, we cant even make our own windows, kitchens and bathrooms..Think about Japanese toilets, and how we are not inspired in the UK to make either a precision tools factory, windows, kitchens, or other..

Instead UK think they can import everything and live off finance, without building anything, not even a good house to live in..

The fact that UK is hugely under developed., has lead to every kind of bottom line, depressing statistiks, in the whole EU..

On the upside Billy..I think what your doing is great..And i applaud what you have achieved , and i support your stance of open free politics..

Lots of Love Billy.

Steve Pirrie's picture

Contrary to the view of Mr. Smith, I find myself more in line with Billy Brag'gs views than those held by UKIP or the Daily Express. Billy makes some solid points about the nature of English / 'British' nationalism - that it relies solely on a simplistic 'us and them' mentality and worldview that cannot account for the complex realities of globalisation. Put simply, Britain withdrawing from the EU would be a disaster for the British economy. Even the uncertainty surrounding the run-up to such a referendum can be seen to have an adverse affect on inward investment to the UK.

I agree that the EU is not a perfect instrument, but I firmly believe that Britain benefits more by being in it than being out of it. It is my sincere belief that most reasonable people would choose to be in the EU when confronted with the bare facts of what being outside Europe would mean for jobs, the economy, and the wider society of Britain.

Don Latuske's picture

I would like to take uo Steve Pirrie's last point about benefits being in the EU versus the risks of being out of it. Try as I might, I have read and discussed as much as I can over the last twenty years or so and I have yet to find one single fact that demonstrates clearly to me just one benefit, preferably a quantifiable one, of being in the EU. I would LOVE to be presented with one fact or several, better still. I often hear that we would be isolated outside of the EU, that jobs would be at risk. Why? If we have good and services that European countries want now, why would that change? Germany, for example, is not going to jeopardise one of its key markets for their car industry. In many respects, the EU "passes down" global directives discussed at fora at the UN level (I believe there is something called the Alimentaire Codex concerning food standard, but am prepared to be corrected on that) where the EU talks on our behalf but Norway represent themselves and can defend their interests there and at other forums. So I repeat, why would anything, in terms of the economy, fundamentally change (other than to improve, the EU market is moribund and will stay that way for some time with its inertia and lack of innovation)?

M.Bowman's picture

It was good to read Billy Bragg's interview.

It is sickening to be so often confronted with the "little England" mentality. The effect of which will surely result in the eventual side-lining of our once great and generous spirited nation.

Wyrdtimes's picture

As a civic English nationalist who has spoken with Billy Bragg it's disappointing he still thinks all English nationalism is belligerent.

England is by far the most diverse part of the "UK". That much vaunted British Tolerance we hear about so often is in fact English tolerance. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have no were near the % of immigrants as England.

Disappointing as well that he is using the twisted meaning of "Little Englander". The term was originally used as an insult by the British establishment against those in England who took a moral stand point against the British Empire. It's nothing to with immigration or tolerance. I'm proud to be a little Englander I want out of the UK and the EU - neither organisations recognise England or the English.

In the last census 33million people in England identified as being just English - as in English NOT British. Clearly I am not alone in being fed up of having neither recognition or representation for the English.

Fred's picture

The nationalism we have in England is not civic, in the way it is in Scotland and Wales.++++++++++++++++

Oh, that would explain their swooning love of we English then. That is why they fly the Union Rag and the flag of every country on earth by the side of their national flag.
Bragg is just another bloody interfering non English mouth pontificating about England.

Fred's picture

M. Bowman ---It is sickening to be so often confronted with the "little England" mentality. +++++++++++
Bowmn! Just what is a little Englander?
Is the Scot a "big Scotlander, a welsh patriot a big Welsher? Why be so bloody demeaning?
The reason is of course you are probably on someone's payroll to put this crap about.

christal's picture

Thank you, Billy, for he sentence "If you tell me that the revolution is going to come, well, great. […]" Made me very happy (after being disappointed to hear you say cynicism would be a bigger problem than capitalism, during a show in Hamburg recently.)
Because, while 'in the meantime' we organise and fight injustice and cynicism as best we can, we must not lose the aim of abolishing capitalism. Accountability inside a capitalist system would be better than no accountability, but it would not end the global economic injustice that kills so many people or makes them refugees, most of them outside of EU and UK.

Thanks for bringing your positions to the political discourse and for "sticking your head above the turret" again and again.
Lots of love from Bremen!

Barry Hamblin's picture

"and I represent the majority of the People of England". Really Billy? I don't remember voting for you to represent me, be first past the post or proportional representation, the reason you Billy will never represent me is that I am one of those 'Little Englanders', you know the ones, the ones you sneer at because they don't share your politics, the ones that believe that they should be able to Govern themselves, the ones that take pride in celebrating St. George's Day, the ones that fly the English flag, the ones that fight for the democracy of an English Parliament

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