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.
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.