Socialist Worker

Dear Billy Bragg

Issue No. 1796

I RECENTLY attended a press conference at Birmingham Town Hall to announce the result of the council housing sell-off ballot. On my way in a press officer, power dressed in the way that only New Labour types seem to think looks good, asked me to sign the book of condolence for the Queen Mother.

When I politely declined she accused of me being 'unpatriotic' and added sarcastically, 'I bet I know what side you're on.' Why am I telling you all this? Because it relates to your new album, England, Half English. I am a great admirer of you and your music.

I'd like to think I was there from the start — I saw you when you supported a rather ropey Chilean folk band just after you released your first album, Life's a Riot With Spy Vs Spy. I watched in admiration when you thumped a Nazi storming the stage at a GLC festival.

I cheered you on when you played all those miners' benefits, and I raised my fist in the air on Clapham Common when you condemned the apartheid regime of South Africa. I have even interviewed you for this paper.

So imagine my horror when I rushed out to buy your new album to see the cover emblazoned with the flag of St George. The album has a few good bitter-sweet love songs and one that takes a much needed swipe at the WTO. But the major thrust of the album is a defence of so called 'English' values.

I know the title track is meant to be a celebration of multicultural Britain but when you sing, 'Oh my country, what a beautiful country you are,' my heart sinks.

You tell the press you want to reclaim English culture from the skinheads and the Tories. But what are these values that we should be trying to reclaim? Are they the blood-soaked adventures of British imperialism? Or the England of today that sees 20 percent of schoolchildren living below the poverty line?

In your song 'Take Down the Union Jack', you sing, 'When did it fall apart? Sometime in the 80s when the great and the good gave way to the greedy and the mean.' Come on Billy — was Britain great before the rise of Thatcher? Tell that to the miners in 1926 or the unemployed marchers of the 1930s.

Any notion that all of us in England from the queen down to an unemployed single mother share a common set of values is a joke. Class comes before nation. The power and vitality of your music has always come from your connection with the working class. In the 1980s it came from the miners' heroic battle against the Thatcher government.

You nearly lost it when you formed Red Wedge and became the mouthpiece of Neil Kinnock's modernisation plans. Your wonderful interpretations of lost Woody Guthrie songs and your support for the Liverpool dockers opened up your music to a new audience.

The problem is that you're sailing too close to New Labour. Tony Blair is the only other person I know who is pushing the idea of an English culture. If I come across angry and bitter it's because I am. Billy, you are looking the wrong way. Please turn back!

As for me, I'm not looking for a new England. I'm fighting for a better world. Yours in solidarity,

Martin Smith

PS: I think the press officer in Birmingham had the measure of me. But I wonder what she makes of your album?

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Article information

Sat 20 Apr 2002, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1796
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