For Kier Hardie and St George

Billy Bragg is vying for the title of number one radical musician during the royal jubilee. Sam Metcalf went to meet him

P ossibly Billy Bragg was the only figure that emerged from the ill-fated Red Wedge grouping of the 1980s with any credibility intact. When Red Wedge disbanded after the disastrous 1987 Labour defeat Bragg kept plugging away, attaching himself to various campaigns associated with the left. He has played anti-poll tax gigs, been involved with the Anti-Nazi League and the latest to benefit from his patronage is the TUC's Living Wage campaign. Bragg has a cannon of fine work - most recently, in collaboration with the US band, Wilco, where he put music to two albums worth of Woody Guthrie songs. Now Bragg is marking the jubilee by releasing a single - 'Take down the union jack' - with all profits from the three marketing-gone-crazy CDs going towards the Living Wage campaign (£1.99 per CD or £5 for all three versions). But beneath the veneer of radicalism lies something else altogether. The cover of the new single features a montage of graphics that symbolise the breaking up of the union flag to reveal a predominant St George's cross. At the beginning of the 1990s Morrissey similarly flirted with such imagery and became such a pariah in this country that he has since fled to live in Los Angeles. Bragg thinks he can get away with it, because he can explain himself: "This is all about the politics of identity. It's an issue of Englishness. I don't want to fall into the same trap as Morrissey. When he wrote songs like 'National Front disco' he made the error of not explaining himself, and it's his bloody fault that he got treated like he did." And then Bragg makes his first stab at explaining his seemingly left nationalism: "It's all about reclaiming the notion of Englishness from the fascists," he says, reiterating a somewhat tired theme. "I am a patriot. But it's a patriotism based of reason - it's not based on thinking England is better than any other country." "I believe that by celebrating the true Englishness this country has generated over the years, then, and only then, can we have multiculturalism. Scotland has managed to start this process, but that's not yet perfect. I am an internationalist, but I think that we need to start focussing on local issues to weed out fascism from our country. The left has quietly tip-toed around the notion of Englishness for too long, and this has let the fascists in." The reasoning behind this is worrying, to put it mildly. Yes, the left has failed the working class, and has not challenged the fascist groupings successfully, but Bragg's answer is to play them at their own flag-waving game. Still, he continues the theme: "Let's look at multiculturalism in an English context. Let's celebrate that. Let's take a look at the English national football team to see how it can work - you've got Sol Campbell, Emile Heskey and Ashley Cole in there. Take a look at the English cricket team, who are led by Nasser Hussain. These are great examples of where Englishness and multiculturalism have met and have been successful. If we keep the United Kingdom or Great Britain - call it what you will - I think all we can do is fuel the fire of the fascists. Britain, for me, will always be associated with the empire and I see it as mono-cultural." As if the Football Association and the MCC are not British institutions. In any case why not hold up the example of the Great Britain athletics team, with Diane Lewis, Darren Campbell and Colin Jackson? And, on a more mundane level, why would the state's divisive, tick-box multiculturalism be any less reactionary if it came wrapped in the St George's cross rather than the union flag? Bragg talks only of getting rid of the fascists, without ever relating this to the working class. Britain's bourgeois parties want rid of the BNP and the National Front too. The Labour Party of 2002 is, it goes without saying, utterly different from the one that Bragg helped fight the 1987 general election. I ask him if he suffers from guilt by association at all. "What you have to understand is that the Labour Party at the time was anti-capitalist - it was the party of organised labour; it was in favour of the overthrow of the capitalist system. We genuinely believed we could overthrow the Thatcher government," he says. "That's all gone now. Three to four years ago, 20-year-olds didn't understand what it meant to rebel against something - but I think things are changing - that's why I'm releasing this single." His optimism is touching, if ridiculously off the mark. The Labour Party has never been anti-capitalist, and it certainly was not in 1987, with Kinnock steering it ever rightwards. Blair himself has pointed out that New Labour would not have happened without Kinnock laying the groundwork. Indeed, Kinnock was despised as a scab by rank and file miners in the Great Strike of 1984-85. But Billy Bragg paints him as Lenin's long lost great grandson. I find it difficult to decide whether all this is naive ignorance or part of a cynical marketing ploy for 'Take down the union flag'. He urges everybody to help make it number one over the jubilee. It is obvious that Billy Bragg still has illusions in the Labour Party, and as long as they are in office he will believe things can change for the better. Yet he still has a leftwing reputation, so I ask him about the Socialist Alliance in view of Blair's embrace of neoliberalism. "I think the Socialist Alliance has a problem in that it's not capable of winning any seats - under proportional representation they might do better. However, if you ask me about the politics of the Labour Party I wouldn't be able to help you. They're all things to all people, aren't they?" And so on to the jubilee. 'Take down the union jack' is a strummed torch song, which Bragg uses to further his argument that political identity in society has disappeared and that the monarchy is as much to blame as anything else. "'Take down the union jack' is aimed at instilling an ideological content into society again. The royals have this power to sign treaties and the power of the privy council. Do you know that Graham Allen MP stood up in the House of Commons the other day and asked whether the civil service could draw up a list of the prerogative powers of the royal family? He was told that it would be too expensive to do this. Everyone would have you believe that the government has all the power in this land. That's bollocks - it all goes back to the queen." Throughout our conversation Bragg's remarks are riddled with contradictions. But what follows is the biggest one yet: "That said, I don't want to abolish the monarchy. I think people should have the right to their obsessions. I don't like 'Coronation Street', but I wouldn't want it banned." Not only is this debasing the actual politics behind everything that the monarchy and the establishment stand for: it is also deeply anti-working class and patronising in the extreme. He goes on to qualify this view by saying, "I'm looking forward to the World Cup, not the jubilee. What I want to see is a monarchy that lives its life outside mainstream society, like in Canada, where the queen may be on the stamps, but she's not part of everyday life." I find it astonishing that someone who many on the left hold up as a musical hero can say this. He wants the civil list abolished, he wants to see Buckingham Palace and the millions of acres of land owned by the royals opened up to the public, but he is quite happy to let them carry on living their undemocratic, privileged lives. Here is a man who is disillusioned by socialism too, it seems. Maybe he has been touched by the hand of Blair more than he would care to admit when he says finally, "What I want is a compassionate society. I think we can build socialism through accountability. Yes, we can build it around philosophers such as Marx, but that language is dead. We need new ideas and a new ideology." Sam Metcalf