Billy Bragg: The biggest enemy we face isn’t capitalism or Conservatism... it’s the deadly lure of cynicism

Billy Bragg performs an impromptu gig on a makeshift stage which has been erected at the Occupy Bristol camp on College Green in front of the Bristol City Council Offices. PA
Billy Bragg performs an impromptu gig on a makeshift stage which has been erected at the Occupy Bristol camp on College Green in front of the Bristol City Council Offices. PA
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I’VE been of the opinion for some years now that the greatest enemy of those of us who wish to live in a fairer society is not capitalism or Conservatism, but cynicism.

I’m not talking about doubt, that most human of sensibilities – you should never trust anyone who has no doubts.

I’m not even talking about scepticism, which, provided it is delivered in a civil manner, can be constructive, helpful even.

I’m talking about cynicism – the bitter scorn of people who have given up and want you to give up too as it makes them feel better about themselves.

Bill Carmichael, the longstanding Yorkshire Post columnist, gave in to that cynical impulse in these pages a week ago when he complained of how “things seem to have changed a lot since my days on the barricades”.

No longer willing to join the struggle for a better world, he is now content to sulk in his armchair and pour cold water on those who have retained the principles he has forsaken. It was rather unfortunate that he chose to accuse me of being out of tune with reality in the headline of his column attacking my support for the Occupy Sheffield and Occupy Leeds last week, given his own slim grasp of the facts.

If, as he claims, I “can fill stadia with adoring fans” could he explain why I was playing at The Leadmill rather than at the Sheffield Arena last month? Like armchair cynics everywhere, he assumes that, because he once saw me on Top of the Pops 25 years ago, that I must be living the Champagne and limousine lifestyle and never need work again. Yeah, right – that’s why I’m travelling round in a glorified Transit van at 53, playing club gigs on chilly Thursday nights in November.

He then made the assumption that because the protesters at Occupy Sheffield have been labelled “‘anti-capitalist”, they must therefore be determined to oust me from my imaginary limo and deprive me of my non-existent Champagne. “Anti-capitalist” is a label that commentators have attached to the Occupy movement, a label that allows them to dismiss the protesters as Utopian dreamers who wish to overthrow the capitalist system.

The reality is both more interesting than the Marxist rhetoric of the 20th century and more pragmatic.

Despite attempts by some in the media to paint them as Wolfie Smith-style revolutionaries determined to expropriate all material wealth, the arguments that have so far emerged from Occupy Wall Street and their sister camp in London have been much more practical. Both have named the removal of big money from politics as their primary aim. American public life has been warped by mammon to the extent that it is simply not possible to run for national public office unless you are a multi-millionaire.

Nor have we in the UK been immune for the darker effects of corporate lobbying, as the recent Adam Werrity affair at the Ministry of Defence reveals.

Sitting in his armchair writing last week’s column, Carmichael set up the Occupy movement as a straw man and, having poured scorn over the motives of both the protesters and myself, he loftily proclaimed: “I hope this explains why I can’t stand in solidarity with the Occupiers.”

Really? Can’t support a movement that wants to remove the influence of corporate money from our democracy?

Can’t stand with those who want to make our politicians more honest, more responsive to us, the people who pay their wages?

Despite his refusal to grasp the reality of a young generation of activists making a new kind of politics under his nose on the streets of Yorkshire, Bill Carmichael was right about one thing in his column: he made a big thing of pointing out that I was a successful businessman and that Britain could do with more people like me.

Never mind the cynicism that underpinned his argument – that anyone who makes a few bob should turn their backs on the people that they grew up with – he’s right to proclaim my success.

I’m proud of being fortunate enough to be able to make my living doing what I love. And Britain does need more people like me.

People who don’t think that their wealth absolves them from any responsibility towards their fellow citizens; people who are happy to support teachers, nurses, carers and other public service workers with their taxes; people who believe that they have a civic duty to use their success to help build a more cohesive, compassionate society for the benefit of everyone.

People who don’t give in to cynicism.