England Half English
“You've got to be engaged, haven't you?”, says Billy Bragg, responding to questions about his extra-music political activities, activities that have ranged from writing opinion pieces on Englishness for major newspapers, like The Independent, to making serious proposals for the reform of the house of Lords. Engaged is a good word to use when talking about Billy Bragg, and indeed it's one that he uses several times during the interview. He can be accused of many things as an artist or activist, but lack of enthusiasm or engagement with the task in hand is not one of them. “You can't expect to inspire your audience,” he continues, “ just by singing about it. You've got to walk it like you talk it, or else you're just exploiting it, don't you think? It's hard to find a way to do that”.
On his last album, proper, England Half English, discounting last year's retrospective compilation Must I paint you a picture, he provided exactly that: a musical and lyrical engagement with the notion of Englishness. It's a theme that he's passionate about, though it may not be to all his audience's taste. “It's not a very popular subject amongst my audience, who are by nature more internationalist, but I don't choose what to write about, I don't choose my subjects, they kind of choose me. I came into this whole business by going to see Rock Against Racism gigs with the Clash. That was how I became politicised, and making an argument for an inclusive sense of English identity, to me, is just a continuation of that same argument”.
Just as he sang All you fascists bound to lose, a lyric written by Woody Guthrie, so, in part, his decision to promote a new sense of Englishness, a pride in being English, was derived in no small part from the resurgence of a certain fascist tendency that he sees in British/English politics: “I think that the results of the European election went by, and the Nationalist parties, the UK Independence Party, and the British National Party, won about 21% of the vote, and it's put nationalism on the agenda, whether we like it or not, and I don't particularly like it because I'm an internationalist”. Framing his argument he continues, “the UKIP, looking at what they're saying, although they've used the Union Jack, they don't really have much support outside of England. They're really a sort of English nationalist party. The BNP are much the same. They don't have any support in places like Wales and Scotland. They use the Union Jack because it has all those imperial connotations, but underneath there's a nasty strain of English nationalism that's bubbling along, and it's not helped by the fact that most people on the progressive side of politics won't deal with people's genuine feelings of identity, the fact that lots of people find flying the flag of St. George says something about them, when England are playing in the European championships for example. All those people aren't fascists just because they're flying the English flag, they're just saying “this is us, here we are”, and when you look at the England team, it's a multicultural team. So I think the time has come to stop allowing those on the right to make all the running on this issue, because what they want to do is they want to define not just what Englishness is, but also who is and who isn't English, and by our failure on the left to make any case for an inclusive English identity we allow them to make an English identity that excludes most of the things that I find really, really important about England”.
This notion of Englishness is difficult to work out though. It's easy to define what it's not, but what exactly is it? “The catch 22 is that I don't know exactly what that is. I'm not capable of defining Englishness.” he replies, continuing, What I'm trying to do is clear a space where we can have this debate”.It’s a debate that revolves around notions of identity: “My feeling, from talking to people about this, is that identity is a very personal thing, and no amount of me saying “you're English, mate”, will make them feel English if they don't feel it”.
Part of the problem is in the lack of a shared common history, I venture. Bragg is quick to disagree: “The question of History is the Right wing's agenda, that History is more important, and our history is all about being Anglo-Saxons, beating the Celts, fighting the French, fighting the Germans, subduing the Natives. I totally disagree with that”. He expands on this, “I grew up with the History of post war Europe, immigration, economic struggles etc. That's more important to me than what happened at the Battle of the Boyne, or Scottish football fans when they come to Wembley talk about 1314, which was the Battle of Bannockburn – those things are interesting, and I'm not dismissing them. Nobody should have to dismiss part of their ethnicity to be part of England; it's just that the old definitions of Englishness as an ethnicity don't really fit any more. What does ethnically 'English' mean? Look at our football team. It's not about ethnicity is it? To qualify for England you don't have to be White or Protestant – it's about something else, innit? It's about something more abstract”.
But, lest we forget, Bragg is first and foremost a musician, and so these concepts of Englishness get expressed, from the stripped down acoustic polemics of Take down the Union Jack through to the Arabic dance sounds of Baby Faroukh, all filtered through his trademark Essex voice. It's vibrant and interesting, and far from what you'd previously define as 'English' music, but that's half the point really, isn't it? “I was trying to explain to someone, the other day, why I was never able to get into progressive rock. Why I was never into Emerson, Lake, and Palmer when I was in school, or Pink Floyd, or Yes – those kind of bands”. Bragg tells me. “The only way I could explain was that there wasn't enough ‘Blackness’ in the music, or the ‘Blackness’ that was in the music was too watered down. I liked music that still had that dimension. I liked a lot of Soul, Reggae, Punk, that obviously had that, as well as R'n'B. That sort of crossroads, cultural crossroads, in music is much more interesting to me. I'm not really interested in Morris Dancing [laughs], I don 't mind people doing it, but to be honest with you it doesn't turn me on.