Billy Bragg: 'We need to express our solidarity with people who are marginalised'

As a musician and activist for more than 40 years, Billy Bragg has a long history of fighting against social injustice. In 2004 he threw his weight behind the then fledgling anti-fascist group Hope not hate. Now, as the group commemorates 20 years of campaigning, Bragg is playing a series of shows in support of it – including one in Sheffield.
Billy Bragg. Picture: Jill FurmanovskyBilly Bragg. Picture: Jill Furmanovsky
Billy Bragg. Picture: Jill Furmanovsky

It is, it seems, a city of which he has fond memories. “I always have a great time in Sheffield, it’s always been really good to me, so I’m really looking forward to coming up and doing the gig,” he says.

The 65-year-old ‘Bard of Barking’ believes Hope not hate’s voice is more relevant than ever as Rishi Sunak’s government increasingly adopts the language of the Right. “I think we’re at the fag-end of this Tory government, they’ve run out of policies and they’re now looking for what you might class as culture war issues,” he says. “They’re going to be stirring up division by looking at marginalised people, for instance illegal migrants, asylum seekers, people coming across the Channel in small boats, the push on this Rwanda issue that we’ve seen in the last couple of days clearly aimed at the council elections (last week), and I fear that when the general election comes, that will be ramped up.

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“It won’t just be immigrants, it will be the trans community, anybody who they feel they can stick a target on. They’ll be doing doing that because they don’t have any sort of way to articulate positive policies, and Hope not hate, their whole raison d’etre is to try to bring people together rather than allow politics to divide them.”

In a recent report, Hope not hate claimed that the line between the Conservative Party and the far right has become blurred in recent years. Bragg feels that Brexit was “part” of a shift in British politics. “In terms of Brexit, I think it was specifically an English nationalism that was there. I know that people in Wales also voted for it but the bulk of people that voted for it were in England, and I think that drift since then, when you have someone like Boris Johnson and then you follow that with the kind of more Brexit ultras in control of the party, you are starting to move towards where the traditional right-wing were. Where the British National Party were 10 or 20 years ago, the Conservative Party are now starting to seep into that same kind of area and press those same kind of buttons, and I find that really troubling.”

Bragg acknowleges that British democracy is not alone in facing challenges. “I do think the populist strain seems to be everywhere in liberal democracy, whether that’s because the populations are suddenly becoming Right-wingers or whether it’s because they feel that politics no longer represents them – I tend to think it’s the latter. If you feel that no one’s looking out for you then the urge to vote for someone who says they’re going to solve all your problems simplistically is perhaps incredibly tempting.

“Because the problems that we face are quite complicated, the economic problems have always been complicated and with an aging population that we have in most liberal democracies now, the need not just for a health service but a ‘capital C’ Care Service to look after people so that they can stay in their homes and use up their useful years, these are difficult problems (to solve). What are we going to do with the resources and how will we do that? – and that’s before we get on to deal with people who are prepared to risk their lives to get into your country; going to Rwanda is not really going to turn them off.”

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Culture war issues, he argues, “simplify everything” and leave little room for debate. “It’s very black and white. We know from arguments on Twitter there’s very little nuance going on there, it’s all finger-pointing, shouting… I struggle with it often, trying to bring a bit of nuance into arguments, but sometimes I wonder if either side wants anything but absolute black and white arguments. So when you mix all of those things up, the possibility for someone to press a button and for someone who says they’re going to solve all this in one fell swoop, and that’s what Brexit was. It was ‘pull this lever and everything’s going to be sorted’, well, we know where we got with that, how ridiculous that was.

Billy BraggBilly Bragg
Billy Bragg

“But I do think that notion was attractive to people and the Brexit impulse is not just an English/British thing, you see it in France, in Holland, there’s elements of it in Hungary, Poland is just coming out of the other end of it and of course our American cousins have a really important election this year as well. Fingers crossed they’ll do the right thing.”

While the repercussions of the Brexit deal continue to be felt – with fears of rising prices after the introduction this week of tariffs on goods imported into the UK – Bragg is concerned that neither of the main political parties are willing to revisit the issue. “I think the proof of the lack of accountability was the refusal of the Conservatives or Labour to talk about Brexit as an issue at this general election. It’s like the elephant in the room. We’re still in denial, how many phases of regret are there, we haven’t got to ‘how are we going to fix this?’ yet.

“That lack of accountability is down to media ownership, it’s to do with the decline of local newspapers, people no longer getting a broad view of the world and instead getting a one-sided view. I try to keep myself from doing that. I’ve got a subscription to the Daily Telegraph, I try to dip in there every now and then to see what they’re talking about. Most of it’s unbelievable, I’ll be perfectly honest with you, but there’s an old saying, if you want to beat your enemy, you should learn his songs, so I’m kind of doing a little bit of that. But I think it’s healthy to have a broader view, and a view of history.

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“I think there is an element of ahistoricism in Brexit and a sense that if we weren’t in the European Union we would be the people that we were before, and it’s just not like that. This is the people who we are and we’re very fortunate, we’ve done some great things in our past, we’ve done some terrible things in our past and the tragedy of it is we’re not able to ​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​be honest about them and thus come to terms with them​​​​​​​ and be able to see ourselves as we really are in the worl​​​​​​​d.

“On a really simplistic level, the reason why there are people of colour in our country is because we were in their country and now they’re in our country and that’s the way it works. ​​​​​​​There’s a link between them and us ​​​​​​​and that will continue. I think it will be a lot easier to find some social cohesion​​​​​​​ if we could just be honest about our history and recognise the benefits that we reaped from our colonial period and also accept the responsibilities that go with that, and we just don’t do that at all.​​​​​​​”

Bragg believes that progressives could do more to counter the arguments of those intent of waging a ‘war on woke’.

“I think we do need to express our solidarity with those people who are marginalised,” he says. “But it’s always been so. ‘Woke’ is just the latest in a long series of things that stretch back to ‘political correctness’, ‘virtue-signalling’, the ‘loony lefties’ back in the Thatcher days. It’s always an attempt to abide by the status quo, to dismiss any challenging argument, ‘it’s woke, we don’t have to deal with that’. It’s their way, again, of trying to avoid accountability, so we need to not be distracted by that and to carry on speaking out as we do.

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“In the long run all the things that they tried to resist have come to pass – gay marriage is an obvious example, who would’ve imagined that 40 years ago when I was just starting out? When I was starting out we were less than 20 years after you could go to prison for being gay. We’ve come a long way, we’re a multicultural country that has brought people in from all over the world to make contributions to make our society incredibly diverse and we just need to take that diversity and use it to make things more inclusive so that people feel part of it.

“You talk to some people and it’s clear that their idea of what constitutes patriotism is a single idea of what it means to be English or British, whereas really if Englishness means anything it means everything in the space that’s called England, Yorkshire and all, it’s all part of it, and I’m pleased about that, I like that, but there are some people who have a very reductive notion of identity and I think over time those people either die off or they come to see, they come to realise, they come in contact with people who they initially felt opposed to and they realise that people are much the same wherever you go in the world and people are here because it’s such a great place to be.

“When we were dealing with these problems ​​​​​​​with the BNP, when Hope not hate was there in Barking, they had a big struggle there and nearly took over the council, but it was like when me and my brother were little my mum would say ’If I knew there was somewhere in the world I could take you where I knew you’d be safe​​​​​​​ and you’d grow up and survive, I would try to get you there tomorrow​​​​​​​ and nothing would stop me’. You just need people to be able to have that perspective​​​​​​​ and not see the negative sides of it. I think that’s a big part of it.”

One of the most intense debates on social media in the past couple of years has surrounded trans rights. Bragg is concerned about the amplifiying effect such platforms have in polarising opinion.

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“Social media is a mirror to humanity, everything we see in that mirror is part of who we are unfortunately,” he says. “Before social media there was, I suppose, gatekeepers, you’d only get the mad people if the letters editor printed their letter or they did something really stupid and it made the news. Now it’s the worst impulses…

“It’s something that has always gone on. I think the trans community are in the firing line at the moment but anyone who’s been around in the past 40 years will know that the gay and lesbian community suffered the same fate. They were completely demonised, and around the same issues – toilets, changing rooms, children, they were all ‘predators’. Maybe it’s because I’m so old I remember that and my ears prick up when I hear those terms being used and I’m like this is just deja vu, this is just the same stuff on a different day.

“I was politicised by Rock Against Racism and I do feel that Hope not hate are inheritors of that. One of the most amazing things for me from Rock Against Racism was seeing those gay guys kissing when Tom Robinson sang Glad To Be Gay; I think I was 19 or 20 at the time and I was hugely inspired by that event, and I feel still part of that movement, and to sit on the fence about trans rights I would be betraying my 20-year-old self, I feel.”

He believes there is “a lot” in the recent report by Dr Hilary Cass on gender identity services that “will be really helpful”, explaining: “A holistic approach to treating kids with a sense of being in the wrong body, I’d love to see that. More mental health support for children finding it difficult to deal with puberty, I’m 100 per cent in favour of that.”

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However, he says: “Saying that trans kids don’t exist doesn’t help that process, denying the lived reality of what is a minority of kids, but they are children who need our support and their families need our support – and I know that because of the number of emails and texts I get when something like that comes out from trans kids saying, ‘Your support is really appreciated’.

“I’ve always tried to remain relevant. I’m not pretty any more, I’m not hip any more, but there’s no reason why I can’t be as involved in the fight as I was before, whether that’s working with Hope not hate against the BNP in Barking or standing up for trans rights. In the fight for trans rights unfortunately the frontline is social media. When I hear (former Conservative Party deputy chairman) Lee Anderson say the Tories are going to fight the next election on trans rights and culture wars, that makes me want to put my tin helmet on and march towards the sound of the guns – and unfortunately that’s social media.

“I try my hardest not to be abusive to people or angry with people. I will admit I get a bit snarky sometimes, nobody has a right not to be snarked, but I think the most we can do is express our support for the trans community in the way we did for gays and lesbians.

“I wrote a song called Sexuality to express my support as a straight man and I’ve tweaked the lyrics a little bit now so it expresses my support for the trans and non-binary community as a Cis man. I think the most you can do with music is make people feel that they’re not alone, and that’s what I try to do with my music and my engagement on social media.”

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The Labour Party might avoid discussing trans rights in an election campaign, but Bragg believes that they will have to face up to if it is in government. “We have to accept that puberty blockers will help some people, not everyone, they’re not a magic bullet, but what they need is more care,” he says. “This is an NHS funding problem, it goes right to the core of what Labour’s election is going to be. It might be that when the election comes, the Labour Party says nothing about trans rights, it wouldn’t surprise me at all given the way they’ve kept the lid on everything since Starmer got elected, but when they get into the NHS, when they get into the need that people have, and when they get into the provision for mental health support, down that road they will ultimately get to the trans community and those people who need that help.

“I want to see our National Health Service be able to help those kids that are struggling at school for a number of different reasons, not just the fact that they might feel they’re in the wrong body but they’re feeling anxiety about the world and unable to deal with the challenges of regular school. I want those kids to be helped all the way, and I hope that a Labour Party committed to properly funding the National Health Service will cover all those bases. It should because if not then we’re getting into deeper trouble.”

Bragg might no longer feel able to be a Labour Party member because of the leadership’s stance on Israel’s invasion of Gaza – “I left after (Starmer) said Israel has a right to self defence,” he explains – nevertheless he is hoping that Labour wins the next general election. “Obviously I want the Tories out,” he says. “In my heart of hearts I’d to see them beaten so badly that they split and they’re done for, so clearly the Labour Party is the best vehicle for doing that and I will undoubtedly be voting Labour at the election in order to bring that about.

“But I wish I felt more enthusiastic, but you can’t always get what you want, as someone once said, but if you try sometimes you might just find you get what you need. What we need is a change of government, a more caring government, a more effective government and something for everybody to unify around and say that s*** is over, we need to engage now in clearing up the terrible mess that the Tories have left us and making sure that nobody is left behind. There’s a lot to do but I think the Labour Party is the best vehicle to lead that. Even in the Blair years I’ve always found good people to work with so I’m sure that will be the same when the election comes, whenever that is.”

Billy Bragg: Hope not hate @20 tour visits Network, Sheffield on May 8.