Free radical: Why it’s showtime for Billy Bragg

Has Billy Bragg mellowed since the miners' strike and Red Wedge? Not likely. And now he is taking on his most important challenge: making his stage debut to battle the BNP for the hearts and minds of Barking

As the light fades on a sunny spring Saturday, Billy Bragg recalls: "It all began at exactly this time of the evening." I am sitting with the legendary singer, songwriter and political activist in a café around the corner from the central London club where, later on tonight, Bragg will be headlining a gig for Hope Not Hate, a campaigning group opposed to the British National Party. Bragg is talking me through the lead-up to his first ever foray into the world of theatre. Later this month, he opens in Pressure Drop, a new play in which he performs half a dozen – "or more if I can squeeze more in" – songs that he has written to fit in with its theme of identity.

"It was last October and I was performing in Halifax, Nova Scotia," Bragg begins. "The soundcheck was over and I'd gone back to my hotel to get ready and order some room service. I was listening to the midnight news from London on the internet and then this voice said, 'BNP leader Nick Griffin has decided to stand in the General Election in...' and there was a very long pause and the room around me seemed to close in." Bragg sits forward in his chair and leans across the table towards me. There are tears gathering in his piercing blue eyes. "And then the voice said, 'Barking'."

Bragg is often called the "Bard of Barking" and his association with his home town is as much a part of his persona as his most famous song, "A New England". Tonight, as he does every time he's on stage, he ends his set with, "My name is Billy Bragg and I'm from Barking, Essex. Good night."

Such a close identification goes a long way towards explaining his almost-tears in describing how he heard about Griffin's decision. If you're attached to where you grew up, have family there (Bragg's mother still lives in the family home with his brother around the corner), you don't want it seen as natural BNP territory. "This is the place," he explains, "where I spent half my life, where I failed my 11-plus, where I kissed my first girl, where I became a punk rocker."

But his emotion also reveals something deeper – that intimate connection between the personal and the political that is the hallmark of Bragg's idiosyncratic brand of punky modern folk music, and, it seems, of the new play. That, though, is skipping ahead, and before we get to Pressure Drop Bragg is giving me a whistle-stop tour around Barking.

"It is now being called the racism capital of Britain but it's no more or less racist than anywhere else in the UK that has had difficult times," he insists. "New Labour has badly let the people there down. There is the decline of the car factory [Ford, in nearby Dagenham, once employed 30,000 locals, and probably the same again, including Bragg's father, in service industries, but has now dramatically scaled its operation down to just 3,000 "making bits of engines"]. And at the same time has come a changing demographic, with a huge influx of people into the borough as part of globalisation. Usually when factories close, people leave, but in Barking people are still coming in. It's a bit like a black hole. And that has caused problems. Labour should have recognised it and put more money in, but it hasn't, and so people in Barking feel betrayed and are therefore open to being exploited by the BNP."

The seat, a traditional Labour stronghold, held by the Arts Minister, Margaret Hodge, is now seen as under threat, especially since it already has 12 BNP local councillors. Hence tonight's fundraiser for Hope Not Hate, an effort to generate funds to combat the impact Griffin has made on the constituency and rally the Labour vote.

As we are sitting in the café, people keep coming up to Bragg to shake his hand. In a world of manufactured pop stars who get no closer to their fans than the pages of a gossip magazine or the other side of a TV camera, this 52-year-old is the real thing. Despite successful albums, sell-out tours and top 10 singles that stretch back to 1983 when he persuaded John Peel to air a track from his first album, Life's A Riot with Spy vs Spy by hand-delivering a mushroom biryani to him at the Radio One studios, Bragg doesn't just play the ordinary bloke (his band is called the Blokes), he lives it. In his checked shirt and workaday black jeans, he's got a smile and handshake for everyone, a joke and even an apology. "This is only happening," he explains, "because we're so close to the venue. Most of the time nobody knows me."

It is hard to believe. For my generation, who grew up with the 1984 miners' strike and Red Wedge – the musicians who worked for the election of a Labour government in 1987 ' – Bragg will always be an iconic figure, immediately recognisable even if his spiky hair is now grey and his insistent, angular face somewhat softer.

Musicians – like politicians – come and go. Bragg, though, is one of the great survivors. Not that he necessarily sees it that way. "Making records," he says half in jest, "can be fucking boring. People aren't buying records any more. You go into the studio, spend far too much money and then everyone wants to hear it but no one wants to buy it. So I thought, between records, I might as well do some interesting stuff." Like Pressure Drop? "Yeah," he replies, "it's about keeping me interested after all these years."

This play with songs – "It's not a musical", he tells me, suddenly fierce, when I use the word – is giving him a new stage to explore familiar themes. It is part of a six-month season of events funded by the Wellcome Collection at its London headquarters around the subject of identity. Bragg's 2006 autobiographical book The Progressive Patriot first attracted the attention of writer Mick Gordon and director Christopher Haydon, who had been commissioned to put on a theatrical run as part of the season. The three of them met and agreed to collaborate.

"Identity is personal and doesn't belong to anybody but you," he explains. "Do you know anything about socialism?" Coming from Bragg, the question sounds like an insult. Anyone worth their salt and his time must know about socialism. But he's not waiting for a reply. "There's democratic socialism, Christian socialism, revolutionary socialism. My point is there are many different types. And there are many different types of patriotism, too. There's the big-picture-Enoch-Powell-wrap-yourself-in-the-Union-Jack patriotism, and then there are people like me who love their country for all its faults. These things are personal. Context is everything."

He quotes the example of the Dorset village near to Bridport where he now lives, looking out to sea, with his wife Juliet, their son and his stepson. "In 2004, when the English football team was doing well, the head of our local school told me he was thinking of banning St George's flags on cars at the school pick-up. I said, 'Why's that?' 'You know why,' he said. 'BNP and all that.' I said, 'You know these people. Do you think they're fascists? If we are ever going to take the flag back, it's people like these parents who are going to lead the charge.'"

Questions of patriotism and identity were also at the heart of Bragg's 2002 album England, Half English, the title a literary reference to the 1960s writer Colin MacInnes who explored similar questions. It included the chart single "Take Down the Union Jack" and expressed Bragg's opposition to the monarchy.

His choice of title, though, he remembers, caused some "queer looks" from among those he calls his "good leftie friends". "It ends with the lines, 'Oh my England, oh my England, what a beautiful country you are' and they said, 'You're being ironic.' I said, 'I'm not. I do love my country. Not my country right or wrong, right or left, but the idea of a society that has built and sustained a welfare state, a society that has defeated fascism, a society that celebrates multiculturalism, a society that won the World Cup. Put me down for all four of those please.'" Bragg has a way, even with this simple list, of turning it into a polemic that lines you up behind him, hairs twitching on the back of your neck.

And so finally, after circling round it, we come to Pressure Drop. The wanderings of our conversation in the café have, however, had a point. They mirror Bragg's own creative journey towards this project. You could argue that everything he has done so far seems to have been building up to it.

"'Pressure Drop' was originally a song recorded in the early 1970s by the Jamaican band Toots and the Maytals [later covered by the Clash and the Specials]. But the group under the most pressure now," Bragg points out, "is the white working class." So Pressure Drop, I suggest, putting two and two together, is about the BNP and Barking?

"Not exactly," he replies. "As soon as I heard the news about Griffin standing, I picked up the phone in my hotel room in Canada and rang Mick [Gordon]. I said to him, 'What we are doing has suddenly become a lot more real than we could ever have imagined. We've got to get this right. It's going to be on during the election campaign and because of Griffin's decision, its going to be much more serious than just being a play with songs. Events have overtaken us."

Pressure Drop is about three generations of the same white working-class family as they struggle to deal with change around them. "Some people," he says, "are desperate for change. They can't wait. But for the people who have been left behind, change can be troubling. They feel nobody else cares about their views, their ideas, the things they care about."

The action centres on the funeral of a father. One of his sons has stayed put where he grew up and, because of the changes there, is considering standing for the BNP at the local council elections. He is in two minds, but under a lot of pressure from his friends. And then his brother returns to bury their dad, having gone away from the area, and provides another perspective. Set in Barking? "No. And I'm not telling you any more. I've probably said too much already."

Even this thumbnail sketch, though, indicates that Pressure Drop is of a piece with Bragg's work as arguably Britain's best protest singer in recent decades. Some might say protest singer full stop, upholding a tradition that stretches back through the annals of folk music. To my surprise, Bragg grimaces at the description. "I don't mind being labelled a protest singer, but I object to being dismissed as a protest singer... 'Billy Bragg, I know him. I don't need to go and see him. He's just a protest singer.'"

But to be mentioned in the same category as Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Ewan MacColl (whose daughter Kirsty charted with "A New England"), Pete Seeger... Bragg cuts me short. "Duran Duran were making a political statement with 'Rio'. No one ever pulls them up about their politics. It's always me." The political stance of "Rio" is momentarily lost on me. 'That if you had a nice boat and nice clothes and were in the Caribbean, you'd be happy," Bragg expands. "That sums up Thatcherism. I've never been happy with the idea of protest singers. I write about what I write about because these are the things that make me angry, whether it's love or politics."

To be fair, Bragg has written many more fine love songs than he has fine political ones, though the line between the two often blurs. "Take 'I Keep Faith'," he says, "which on the surface of it is a personal song – I keep faith with you. My son Jack, when he first heard me do it live, said to his mum, 'Why doesn't dad just tell everyone this is about you?' But tonight, the way I am going to introduce it, it will be about us as a group of anti-fascists keeping faith in the people of Barking and Dagenham and not dismissing them just because the BNP are targeting them. And when I play it to an ordinary audience, it is about my faith in their ability to change the world."

In terms of changing the world, Bragg has clocked up a few notable achievements of his own beside his back catalogue. In 2001, he spearheaded a tactical voting campaign in his Dorset backyard that delivered that rare thing for the county: a Labour MP, and almost unseated local Tory grandee Oliver Letwin. More recently, he has organised a 30,000- strong protest movement via the internet demanding that bonuses be blocked in part-nationalised banks. He publicly refused to pay taxes until they were. He may not ultimately have stopped the bonuses, but he did give voice to a popular sentiment and played his part in forcing some senior figures in the City to foreswear their lump sums. He was also credited with getting Royal Bank of Scotland chief executive Stephen Hester before the Treasury Select Committee for a grilling.

"There was no one speaking on my behalf on this issue. New Labour is totally enthralled by big business. Or there is an even grimmer reality in which the fate of democratic nations is now controlled by markets. If that is true, then we really need to do something about it, break up those companies that are too big to fail. I'm not an out-and-out nutcase anti-capitalist, but capitalism works on the basis of business propositions that make money. If they fail to make money, then they go bust. When the RBS went bust and was bailed out by the British taxpayer, it was no longer in the free market. So those rules don't apply any more. Stephen Hester can't say 'I am a prisoner of the market.' He's out of the market."

Listening to Bragg speak, when he gets passionate, I'd happily be swayed to put my cross next to his name on a ballot paper. Has he ever thought of standing – against Nick Griffin in Barking, for example?

He answers a question with a question – like all good politicians. "How could I, as an individual without a party, guarantee that people in Barking and Dagenham would get employment? Only central government could do that." But if you were the Labour candidate? He laughs an ironic laugh. "Fat chance that is. If I was the Labour candidate, I'd have to be pro building nuclear-power stations. It's not my job."

He left the party in 1991 over the first Gulf War. "I still work with them and there are plenty of good people in there. I have a lot of respect for politicians. They work very hard, they don't see their families much and they get shat on by their own party very often and totally dismissed by the general public. But just because you want to make a difference, you don't have to be a politician. There is activism, and it is just as important as being a politician." We are back to protest-singer ground again.

Age tends to mellow most musicians, take the edge off even the most radical of voices, but not Billy Bragg. He remains, as the title of his most recent album has it, Mr Love & Justice. "Since Christmas," he tells me, "I've done 16 gigs, only two of which were payers. I spent three weeks building the 'no bonus' campaign from scratch, and then two weeks with Jailed Guitar Doors [a charity that supports prisoners with an interest in being musicians]. During the play's run, I'm going to be spending my days in Barking campaigning." So no let up then? "I think that, if anything, I'm getting more radical. Like Tony Benn."

'Pressure Drop' runs at Wellcome Collection, 183 Euston Road, London NW1 from 19 April to 12 May (0844 412 4318, wellcomecollection.org)

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