‘Keir Starmer doesn’t inspire people’: Billy Bragg on politics, the royals, and robot songwriters

Ahead of his appearance at music and philosophy festival How the Light Gets In, singer and author Billy Bragg talks to Roisin O’Connor about the state of the nation

Thursday 25 May 2023 06:30 BST
Billy Bragg: ‘Starmer could easily mess up the next election'
Billy Bragg: ‘Starmer could easily mess up the next election' (Press image)

No, no no no,” says Billy Bragg, shaking his head vehemently. The British singer-songwriter is baulking at the idea that Labour leader Keir Starmer is the one to command real change in this battered isle. “I don't think he's got the courage to step up and do that,” he sighs. “It’s probably going to be left to the Liberal Democrats.” In fact, the staunch socialist, once a Labour poster boy, isn’t sure the party has the next election in the bag at all. “[Starmer] could easily mess it up,” he says. “I don’t think he inspires people.”

As Bragg looks out on the London skyline, he observes how the landscape has changed in the years since he and Paul Weller formed Red Wedge, the musicians’ collective pushing the youth vote for Labour ahead of the 1987 election. “That’s the NatWest Tower,” the 65-year-old says, pointing. “Used to be the tallest building in London.” The skyscraper looming over Old Broad Street was completed in 1980, the same year that Bragg finished writing “A New England”, about his longing for a new ideology in Thatcher’s Britain. Back then, he was on the picket lines for anti-fascism protests and hosting benefit concerts for striking miners, at the same time as appearing in the UK singles charts with anthems such as “Between the Wars” and “Levi Stubbs’ Tears”. But unlike the architectural landscape, the godfather of British protest punk hasn’t changed a jot since he first began releasing songs that railed against poverty, homophobia, domestic violence, and, of course, Margaret Thatcher. He’s even got the same haircut.

He turns up for the interview in his hipster-grandad get-up: jeans and a zip-up sweater, rucksack slung over his shoulders and eyes framed by black-rimmed glasses. We were supposed to meet at a pub across from The Independent’s office, but it turns out to be closed for renovations. So now he’s ensconced in an armchair in the office kitchen, gazing at the grey clouds gathering over even greyer buildings. He’s relaxed and genial, even as he mentions how he’s currently busy curating the Left Field stage at Glastonbury with his longtime partner, Juliet, and preparing for a panel titled “Manners Maketh Man” at How the Light Gets In festival, which takes place from 26 May in Hay-on-Wye.

“It’s really about the madness of social media discourse,” Bragg says of the panel. “So that would cover death threats online, cancel culture, accountability… what do you want to start with?” Well, let’s start with accountability, given he wrote an entire book – 2019’s The Three Dimensions of Freedom – about the subject. In it, Bragg raged that “this is a time of dismissive demagogues promoting a know-nothing politics of swaggering innocence driven by scorn and spite”. Today, his mood is calmer but the viewpoint is the same: “The idea that ‘free speech’ is the be-all and end-all – that you can say whatever you want to say – is troublesome. You also need equality, you have to uphold the rights of other people. With accountability, you can disagree but not abuse.”

Bragg has spent most of his life holding people who abuse their power to account – from Thatcher and the BNP to Boris Johnson and Donald Trump – and speaking up for those without a voice. He started his music career playing benefit gigs during the 1984 miners’ strike (he’s encouraged by the public support for union action today, noting “it wasn’t like that in the Eighties”). During the pandemic, even as he supported Juliet through cancer treatment at their home in Dorset (surgery to remove a tumour was successful), he scoured his attic for merch to sell in aid of struggling music venues, and serenaded frontline health workers via video calls.

Right now, the person in power causing him the most concern is Suella Braverman. The home secretary is waging a one-woman war on immigration in the UK, and is currently under fire over her previously undisclosed links to Rwanda, as well as being involved in a row over a speeding fine. “She’s very, very dangerous,” Bragg says, citing Braverman’s recent claim that small boat arrivals have values “at odds with our country”.

“We’ve made people from Europe feel unwelcome,” he continues, running a hand through his crop of white-silver hair. “The NHS is totally understaffed. Service industries are desperate for workers. We've always relied on those people to come and work with us.” He read a headline the other day about the Bank of England telling Britons they “need to accept” that they’re poorer. “Now, why is that?” he asks. “No one wants to talk about why that is and what we can do about it. [We’re] not allowed to have the debate around Brexit… it's the crime that dare not speak its name.”

He isn’t surprised that, with a few exceptions, people aren’t taking to the streets over the dire straits they find themselves in, from the cost of living crisis to food shortages and red tape at the borders. “Unfortunately, [the public] voted for it, didn't they?” he says. “That's why they can’t really go out on the streets and complain. If you voted for Brexit, and now you're living with that reality, you're kind of stymied.” So what about the people who didn’t vote to leave the EU? “They need someone to stand up and say ‘we’re going to change this’,” Bragg responds.

Ken Livingstone, Neil Kinnock and singers Paul Weller and Billy Bragg at the launch of Red Wedge in 1985 (Getty )

For all his staunch left-wing views, Bragg doesn’t identify as a republican, and has instead warmed to the idea of a “ceremonial” monarchy. “They could come out and wave on the balcony, and we’d all get a day off when they get married, and they could go out and open things,” he suggests. “The present concept of monarchy is more to do with celebrity than it is to do with kingship. That’s not a bad thing to have in society.” He only wishes the royal family – and the public – could come to terms with the exploitation carried out by the British empire: “Accept that it was really just about going around the world and nicking other people's stuff.”

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Bragg prefers to rifle through his own belongings. He’s been putting together a special anniversary edition of his debut album, Life’s a Riot with Spy vs Spy. Released in 1983 and comprising just seven songs (clocking in at under 16 minutes), it still fizzes with Bragg’s earnest intensity. The lyrics are as prescient as ever; his rough holler is redolent of The Clash’s Joe Strummer. In “The Busy Girl Buys Beauty”, he had a blistering feminist anthem that lamented the restrictive social standards imposed on women. Over the electric guitar crunch of “To Have and Have Not”, Bragg – who failed his 11-Plus – sang bitterly about unemployment, education and financial uncertainty.

The album's 40th anniversary has provided ample opportunity for Bragg to delve into his extensive, albeit chaotic, archive. He and Juliet have been putting a book together detailing 40 significant objects from his career (“it was a lot of fun finding them”), from old guitars to tour passes and itineraries. He recently stumbled upon a metal stamping disc for making vinyl records: “It allowed me to reflect on the incredible ways the music industry has changed since I first started out.”

When it comes to AI-generated “music”, where software can come up with an approximation of a song by Rihanna, Ed Sheeran or, hypothetically, Bragg, he’s supremely unconcerned. “It’s just another tool,” he shrugs. “I don’t think we should be afraid of it.”

The thing about music, he elaborates, is that it’s an art form that is fundamentally based on empathy. “A song, whether it’s recorded music or particularly live music, has the ability to make you feel that you’re not alone,” he says. That feeling of going to a gig with 10,000 other people, and that sense that whatever emotions you’ve invested in that song are accepted, and in that moment that you’re not alone… you can’t get that s*** online. [AI music] will never be the real thing.”

Rock’n’roll by its very nature is transgressive

For Bragg, there has always been that intrinsic link between music and humanity, its ability to inspire people to rise up. He’s seen it in the pop, rock and country music stars inviting drag queens onto their stages in the US, or else dressing up in drag themselves, in protest against draconian new laws about live drag performances. And given the nature of rock’n’roll, he points out, it makes sense that the two communities would join forces.

“Rock’n’roll by its very nature is transgressive... that’s what the greatest rock’n’roll is,” he says. “If you think of Little Richard, he was actually a drag artist, early on. Bowie, Harry Styles… the ability of pop music to challenge people’s perceptions in that way, I think, is absolutely essential to what rock’n’roll is about. So drag artists are kind of like our peers, and we should be more vocal in supporting them and their right to exist,” he says with conviction, “because that’s where the most exciting rock’n’roll comes from”.

HowTheLightGetsIn Hay 2023 takes place 26-29 May in Hay-on-Wye. As a festival partner, The Independent is offering a 20 per cent discount on tickets with the code INDY23. Don’t miss out on tickets here. For those of you who can’t be with us in person, all the debates and talks from the festival will gradually be released online in the months following the festival on the Institute of Art and Ideas online platform, IAI.TV

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