Billy Bragg's latest pronouncement is proving to be quite controversial. How's that? Aren't so many of the things the Bard of Barking, once described as a "one-man Clash", railed against – Thatcherism, the Berlin Wall, the Cold War, Reaganism – old, exhausted battles? A compassionate and ultra-humane bloke, Bragg has done other things besides politicising. He's written some of the most heart-rending songs in the English language and, latterly, communed with the spirit of Woody Guthrie to record some of the folk legend's lost back-catalogue. Still, he's no stranger to irritating people – mostly anyone right-wing.
But now, he's achieved an irritational personal best by getting up the nose of the politically correct elite. Has the world gone mad? What did he say to achieve such a thing? Simply, that England needs to reclaim, and be proud of, an English identity.
Bragg addresses the issue in his new LP, England, Half English. Appropriately, it's mixed. Half the stuff is Bragg on top form, and half of it is lacklustre. Of the top stuff, there are songs about huge corporations taking control of politics, songs about the destructive UK work ethic and why it just ain't good to put in the longest hours in Europe. There's a song about trying to clear your head, "Some Days I See the Point", that's truly beautiful. And there are songs about our mongrel race, and about what it must feel like to come here as a refugee.
Bragg wants to talk about the fact that England is multicultural, how that's good and provides vital dynamism, and how we understand our changing identity. He's doing it at this timely juncture because of the current debate involving the likes of Roger Scruton, who seem keen to hark back to an England of bicycle clips and rationing. If we leave the debate to this kind of person, Bragg argues, it'll come out twisted and be as irrelevant to modern England as a tea cosy. The cross of St George will still be the property of football hooligans and the National Front, who have taken it away from the rest of us – we've let them – and made the whole subject embarrassing.
Right. So Billy Bragg and I are at his publicist's office. He's come from Dorset, where he lives, and where, presumably, he's had time to sit back and think of England. Let's get things straight: is this album talking to London? That's where most of the racial mix is centred.
"That's true." Bragg, healthily weathered by the sea air, sits forward. "London is the most multicultural city in Europe. But it's quintessentially English. Everything that happens in London is part of Englishness, just as everything that happens in England is. In London, it's just concentrated."
Hang on, London is quintessentially English?
"It is. Just walk down the street."
Well, if I were to walk down the street in Hackney, where I live...
"What isn't English about that?"
Most of the food I see in the shops. Vegetables I couldn't pronounce.
"Does that make Dalston Turkish or African?" He can be quite belligerent, can Billy. "Is East Ham part of Bangladesh or London? Are the children English or Bengali?"
But they would tell me – people I know – that they're Bengali.
"Well, send 'em to Bengal, see how Indian their families think they are. This is my point. These people are born in England, they watch EastEnders, they listen to Kiss FM, they're present in our culture, right? We all have a common experience, and Englishness resides in that sense of belonging."
But there is no sense of belonging, because there's no identity. We don't take ourselves seriously enough to have formulated one.
"Which is why I'm trying to come up with something."
But ask a liberal-minded Anglo-Saxon if they think they're English and, as you know, they fidget.
"Yeah, and why is that?" Bragg unzips the "Angleterre" sweatshirt he brought for the photo shoot. "Why is it that a bunch of old English geezers singing in a pub is embarrassing, but if they're Scottish or Irish they're fabulously cultural and Shane MacGowan?"
Beats me; diehards might mention the Empire.
"First, that was ages ago. Second, it was a British thing, and the Scots have managed to divorce themselves from it by their referendum. Now, we have a problem because we've never dealt with this Empire business. The 1940s, Winston Churchill in his 'their finest hour' speech; he was talking about the Empire and the Commonwealth, 550 million men and women of different races and creeds, who all came together to fight fascism. That's when the first people from the Caribbean came to this country. A significant number of all those people on the Windrush in '48 had already been to Britain as ground crew for the RAF. They knew that in Britain they could learn skills. So really, our finest hour is the beginning of the multicultural society."
And, of course, we're multicultural to begin with. We were always a mongrel breed. Maybe that's why we adapt to so many influences, it all goes into the mix.
"Yeah. Why do people wanna come to England out of all the European countries? Why here, if it's so terrible? Because of what we've achieved with our diversity. There is racism here, we know that, but on the whole we rub along better than most, the way we react to people from a different background is more open. That's something to cherish."
Which brings us to the flag of St George, because the Union Jack represents something that, since devolution, doesn't exist anymore. Bragg would like to see the English flag representing open-mindedness. "I'm not trying to make people patriotic, I'm not a football hooligan, which I've been called because of all this. I just don't want that flag to say, 'racist'. If you see a Scottish flag on a van, do you think, 'racist'?"
Well, I'm not sure, actually. They certainly hate us.
Bragg sighs. "The only problem I have with the Scots is that they define themselves by their hatred of the English. Flower of Scotland, the song they sing about Bannockburn... It's not for me to say what their national song should be, but surely they're better than that."
But, of course, that's not all Scots, just as not everyone who's English is a football hooligan.
"Obviously. But what's the national anthem of the English? We don't have one. I'd suggest 'Jerusalem', not 'Land of Hope and Glory', which is about the Empire. Blake says in 'Jerusalem' that he's gonna build a better England – y'know, 'Bring me my bow... I shall not cease till we have built Jerusalem', and that can mean so many things to so many people. Everyone can sing it."
Bragg's album, he's at pains to point out, is filled with sitars, djembes, guitar, Hammond organ – everything he thinks makes up English music "because you can't leave any ambiguity around this, and I'm doing my best not to. The song 'England, Half English', that tune is an Arabic folk song".
Understood. But we still haven't nailed Englishness as a concept. It can't just mean "diversity". What is it, in a nutshell?
"Forget it, there is no nutshell." Maypoles? "When did you last dance around a maypole? We don't have an abstract brand. Robert Burns belonged to the Scots, but Shakespeare doesn't belong to us."
I don't see why. Anyway, you say Orwell came up with a list of things he thought were English. What would your list be?
"Well, it's dictated by my cultural background. So Bobby Moore winning the World Cup. It doesn't mean the same to everyone, I'm aware of that. Chalk horses made in the Bronze Age; Marmite. It's personal. Englishness is like a mantelpiece that you put things on. We all have that mantelpiece, it's what you put on that mantelpiece in your soul."
Sideboard's more English. "Sideboard of your soul. Oh God, there's an album in that."
You can see how tricky this is; it's like trying to grab mercury. As the man says, we're reluctant to draw attention to ourselves. "But the problem there is, we leave a vacuum where Englishness is, and that vacuum is in danger of being filled by fascists and xenophobes. We need to come up with an alternative something-to-belong-to."
What we also need is Billy Bragg – who may not have all the answers, but at least he cares – standing for Parliament. He won't have that: "If I was a backbencher, I'd never be able to say the things I do."
Bragg may get involved in Jubilee celebrations. Though he thinks we should take political power from the monarchy, he's not a republican. "A generation is with us whose relatives died for King and country. A bit of respect is in order, and that manifests itself in the person of the Queen. Once she dies, there's a different debate to be had."
Indeed. Wait. We haven't really talked about the album.
"Oh, I think we have."
'England, Half English' is released 4 March on Cooking VinylReuse content