Sunday, 24 August 2014

The Progressive Patriot - Billy Bragg


And talking of Billy Bragg....
In 2006 Bragg wrote a book entitled The Progressive Patriot which was ostensibly a wrestle with the issues of Englishness, identity and patriotism. Instigated by the sudden fashion for flying the St George's Cross during the European Football Championships in 2004, Bragg felt there was a need for a discussion about the use of this flag and what it was actually representing. In his and many other peoples' eyes it should be said, the English flag and in particular the Union Jack was a symbol of right-wing, xenophobic ideology, soaked in the blood of British Empire; flown proudly only by conservatives at the last night of The Proms or neo-Nazis, racists and Fascists belonging to any number of Far-Right organizations. The English flag, be it the Union Jack or the Cross of St George was the property of the Right and therefore a symbol of everything Bragg was against. When in May of 2006 the racist British National Party won seats on the Council of his then home town of Barking in East London, the need for a debate suddenly became more urgent.

This was never a book that was at the top of my reading list, hence only eight years later I finally get round to reading it and frankly, I'm glad I didn't rush out to buy a copy as soon as it hit the shops because to put it mildly and politely: it's fucking rubbish. Part biography, part history lesson, part would-be polemic; in the end it's just a mess of all these things that takes the reader nowhere apart from up Billy Bragg's arse.

From the start Bragg states his book is an attempt to go beyond the territories of the Durham Miners Gala and the Tolpuddle Martyrs Festival and convince the majority that the Left have their interests at heart. His aim is to 'reconcile patriotism with the radical tradition' but what he actually means by this is hard to fathom because what writing there is about 'the radical tradition' is eclipsed by a never-ending history lesson throughout the book explaining how we all ended up here in this place called Britain. The history lesson Bragg conveys, however, is not that of the New Model Army, the Levellers, the Agitators, the mobs, the riots or the innumerable acts of dissent and sedition conducted in a bid to move things forward for the common man but the same history as taught in schools concerning the lives of Kings and Queens throughout the ages and the 'noble actions' of the Establishment, be they sanctioned by royalty or not. Bragg peddles the same history he says he's critical of and wishes to repudiate, so raising the question of what Bragg actually means by 'radical'. Which leads on to wondering about Bragg himself.

When writing of his family's background it's all very charming but really of no interest to anyone apart from himself and his die-hard fans. When he writes about his own life and influences such as George Orwell, Simon and Garfunkel, and The Clash he becomes more animated and his writing more enthused, particularly when touching upon the Rock Against Racism carnival of 1978 which he describes as a life-changing experience.

There are certain events that he neglects to mention, however, that calls into question the extent of the influence upon him of punk rock, The Clash, Simon, Garfunkel, Uncle Tom Cobley and all; one of them being that just three years after his life-changing experience of witnessing The Clash and his baptism into Left-wing politics he joined the army. How radical was that? This was in May of 1981, just a month after the Brixton riots when absolutely everything - including youth culture and punk rock in particular - was being heavily politicised through the policies of Thatcher in England and Reagan in the USA.
Four years later in 1985 there was Bragg again urging everyone to vote for Neil Kinnock - the same Neil Kinnock who had by then not only back-tracked on his support for unilateral nuclear disarmament but had spectacularly failed to support the striking miners. Was this again Bragg's idea of radicalism? It would appear so.

At one point in his book Bragg writes: 'It is a broadly accepted fact that, over the past fifty years, Britain has become a classless society'. Really? But if this is what Bragg believes then it perhaps explains everything about him and his politics. Class has got little to do with wealth which is why it's perfectly all right if Bragg moves from his native (working class) Barking, in Essex to a mansion-type house in a (middle class) village on the Dorset coast. Fair play to him. It's a bit disturbing, however, when he calls for a Declaration of Rights for the people of Britain to be drawn up and seems to have no qualms about who might conduct it. He seems to believe that such a Declaration would be perfectly safe in the hands of someone like Neil Kinnock, or perhaps Tony Blair, or even David Cameron. After all, Britain is now a classless society and the fact that practically everyone in any position of real power or influence is Cambridge, Oxbridge or Eton-educated shouldn't make any difference...

It's exasperating when someone like Billy Bragg is held up as a fine example of how a protest singer should be or when they're put forward as spokesmen for anything because typically all they point the way to is moderation, accommodation and ultimately commodification. Essentially they're nothing more than sops, foils and puppets on strings who at best can act only as stepping stones to either one of two things: further action as in whatever form might be suitable for the listener, even if it's simply reading a book to find out more about any given subject - or a one-way trip up the singer's arse. He might well be a nice guy in real life and everything but - based particularly on this book he's written and any number of his past endeavours - in the case of Billy Bragg it's unfortunately the latter.

John Serpico

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