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Streets of London: Scoop Chats With Billy Bragg

The Streets of London…

Scoop Chats With Billy Bragg…

By Malcolm Aitken

photo credit – used with permission

English singer-songwriter Billy Bragg isn’t politically backwards in coming forward. Although Billy’s quick to point out he’s also written lots of apolitical tracks, he’s world renowned for his political lyricism and commentary on workers’ rights, Margaret Thatcher and the miners’ strikes of the 1980s. He’s sung about and waxed lyrical on the cynicism of the beauty industry, English patriotism, reforming the House of Lords and military attacks on ‘rogue states’. An outspoken opponent of racism and immigrant bashing, Billy also lent his support to Labour’s 1987 election campaign and London mayor Ken Livingstone’s successful bid for power in 2000.

Billy and his band the Blokes released the single ‘take down the union jack’ (the title says it all) on their album, ‘England, Half English’ in time for the Queen’s golden jubilee in June. Billy signalled he wanted to express the feelings of people who, like him, weren’t looking forward to the toadying the jubilee would inevitably bring. Clearly, many millions of Brits had fun celebrating 50 years of Elizabeth II’s reign. However, Billy undoubtedly struck a chord with a section of the British public annoyed by numerous journalists, politicians, rock stars and other people, as they saw it, fawning over the Queen and her family. This perceived obsequiousness grated on their nerves.

Billy’s perhaps most famous for ‘new England’, which was later covered by the late Kirsty MacColl. ‘Waiting for the great leap forwards’, ‘the world turned upside down’ and ‘greetings to the new brunette’ feature among well-known Bragg tunes. Testimony to his rare ability to combine the political and the personal, the New Musical Express (NME) once dubbed him Britain’s best rock poet. It’s likely a few Scoop readers out there will have a copy of Back to Basics, the Internationale or Life’s a Riot lurking somewhere in their CD collections.

On Saturday, Charter 88, a British campaigning organisation, held a conference on strengthening democracy and increasing citizen participation in British politics and globally. Scoop briefly caught up with Billy there.

Scoop: Let’s look at this realistically. Whatever sort of democratic structures we have in place, there’s always at least a proportion of the population that will remain lazy and apathetic…

Billy Bragg: Yeah…

Scoop: Therefore effective, inclusive democracy is impossible don’t you think?

Billy: Not with the use of cattle prods. That’s my recipe. Get the lazy fuckers out and get ‘em voting. Don’t you have to vote in Australia, isn’t it compulsory?

Scoop: Well, I’m a New Zealander, but in Australia…

Billy: Oh, I apologise. I’m sorry.

Scoop: No, that’s all right. You do have to vote in Australia [or at least receive a ballot paper] and they charge you a bit of money if you don’t…

Billy: Yeah!

Scoop: And they do enforce it, right. People get out there and vote. Ninety percent-plus turnouts.

Billy: You see that’s encouraging, I find that very encouraging. Yeah, when I say cattle prods I mean metaphorically of course.

Scoop: You’re quite serious, you need to get people to vote…coercively, broadly speaking, it’s only realistic?

Billy: Yeah, it should be part of the civic….Yeah, because that’s their right to complain there. The fact they voted, they’ve got a right to complain if it doesn’t turn out the way they thought it would.

Scoop: And should there be a ‘none of the above’ option of some type?

Billy: Yeah, I think so, yeah. I’m a…I’m very much in favour of accepting…if ‘none of the above’ is…you know…wins, then I think that’s the fault of the politicians, you know. A lot of the problems we have are to do with the culture of our political parties rather then our electorate.

Scoop: Right…

Billy: I think blaming the electorate’s getting the cart before the ‘orse a bit.

Scoop: Right, so what about the monarchy? To have an effective democracy, a participatory democracy, do we have to demolish the monarchy?

Billy: Well, do you have an effective democracy in New Zealand?

Scoop: In some way it’s more effective than here…

Billy: That’s a monarchy in’ it?

Scoop: It’s under a constitutional monarchy…

Billy: There you go…you’re doing all right there aren’t ya? Well, I think abolishing the monarchy is overblown as a way of changing society. I think we need a written constitution before that and, you know, also perhaps proportional representation as well.


- Malcolm Aitken is a freelance journalist based in London. He can be contacted at

© Scoop Media

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