"Young People, This Is Your Miners' Strike" - We Spoke to Billy Bragg About Saving Britain

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"Young People, This Is Your Miners' Strike" - We Spoke to Billy Bragg About Saving Britain

He's lived through punk, suffered through Thatcherism, and fought the National Front—what does he think of the UK's current shitshow?

It's great talking to Billy Bragg about music, because he loves music so much it makes you wish you had anything in your life you loved as much as Billy Bragg loves music. His new album, Shine a Light (a collaboration with Joe Henry), is the sound of a man who worships music so damn hard, he has become something of a wise old historian; a folk rock shaman—and tells the story of how the construction of the first railroads across America didn't just create a huge paradigm shift in human existence, but also provided the inspiration for a lion share of early American pop music. To capture this story on the album, he traveled 2,800 miles across the US by train, recording in old stations and buildings as he went. So yeah, he's a dedicated man, and you should listen to it right now.

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But to be frank, in this current climate, it would be a travesty to speak to Billy Bragg and not discuss the long-running sell out shitshow that is Britain in 2016. Bragg lived through punk rock, protested through Thatcherism, tackled the National Front head on, put himself on the frontline of the 1984-85 Miners' Strike, played covert gigs in Gorbachev's Soviet Union, wrote a book about progressive patriotism, and has, for nearly thirty years, been the image that is conjured in the mind's eye of any British person when they think of the term "protest music."

The problem is, he is, of course, proper left-wing. I am also pretty left, and—though it's really lovely to talk about the perks of socialism for ages with an older, wiser person until you feel like the world will inevitably be beautiful very soon, honest—the last thing anyone needs right now is another frothy interview between two people who agree on everything; both shaking their fists at modern Britain and shouting into an echo chamber of self-satisfaction and sickly sweet confirmation bias. Because, in a way, that is kinda how we got into this mess in the first place.

So, to keep this whole thing as interesting as possible, I tried to play devil's advocate throughout our conversation, like a really shit Paxman or a really good Evan Davis. And I'm telling you all this so you don't go thinking I'm like a closet Tory or something.

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Noisey: You've been an artist and activist for almost 40 years now. Is right now, the summer of 2016, the strangest time you've ever known?
Bragg: Yes, it really is. Before, in times of great turmoil, what was at stake and where we were going was clear. I think back to 1975, when we were battling against the National Front: we knew exactly what we were fighting for. During the Miners' Strike, we knew and understood the two forces that were involved. Now it's really difficult to see where we're going, because there's no plan for Brexit.

There's a sense that, in some ways, we have come through the looking glass, and entered a situation we don't recognise. At the same time the Parliamentary Labour Party have decided to totally flip out and turn the whole movement upside down. So, there's a very ill-alignment of planets going on right now. In order to establish where we want to go, we need to work out where we are at the moment, but we're now 4 weeks since the result and it's still not clear where we are.

It feels like the left, in Britain anyway, really struggles to offer up those key big ideas for people to connect with in times like these. Have you ever lost faith in left-wing politics?
I'll be honest with you: I have my days, yeah. But I came to conclusion a few years ago that the enemy of all of us who want to make the world a better place is cynicism.

Not the cynicism of the Daily Mail, but our own cynicism. And the antidote to cynicism is empathy. And that's what I try to encourage in my audiences; a bit of empathy. I played the night of the referendum result at Glastonbury, and the emotion in the audience was so high. They'd all woken up that morning feeling like how I used to feel when we woke up to Thatcher victories. You look at people on the bus and think, "Really? You fucking voted for these people again?" You feel totally alienated. So my job that night in the tent was to make people feel like they're not alone. We charged their activism and sent them out into the night.

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That's how I've always overcome the feeling of wanting to give up. I write these songs and play them to an audience, I see their response and I think, "Okay, I'm not the only person who gives a shit about this." Music can't change the world but it can give you a different perspective and a sense of communion with others. We've lost it but we're still together, and we're still gonna go forward on this.

That's how you keep your personal faith, but what about the failures of the left? Why does it feel like those on the right can always simplify and amplify their core ideas so effectively, while the slow learning left just organises marches and vaguely demands "new radical ways of thinking"?
I think the reason the right have the ability to get their dynamic together is because their beliefs are the most base instincts in human nature. It's selfish individualism versus humanitarian empathy. The Tories have the sort of superhero vision where one person or one idea can solve this entire problem, whereas the left have broader ideas – we're trying to move everybody together at the same time. That's bound to be more difficult. And when you've got a lot of the mainstream media against you too, you're always fighting into a headwind.

But history has shown that, eventually, humanity asserts itself, because, deep down, it's what people really believe. That's why, even while the Tories are in power, something like equal marriage can happen. How? Because there was enough pressure, building all the time. The left needs to bring that pressure to the surface more and more, and focus it better. Obviously, they're not really doing that just now at the moment.

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Well yeah, you look over there right now: the Tories are just waiting to be held to account for both the last 4 weeks and the last 6 years, but Labour have imploded. You've been very public with your support of Jeremy Corbyn…
Mm.

Can you truthfully see him becoming a leader of Britain?
If he's given a chance. He's not been given a chance to put forward his ideas, because as soon as he was elected, not only did the Conservative party and the right wing newspapers attack him, but the Labour party itself attacked him. It's a very strange situation to find a Parliamentary Labour Party isolated from its own leadership, membership, and the unions. What's going on here? Are Labour a mass-movement party or are we just hollow?

As we're finding out now, democracy is a very messy thing. But it's the only way that we as citizens have any agency over our lives. Whether that's party democracy in the Labour party or parliamentary democracy in the nation. And at the moment, our parliamentary democracy is messed up, because our voting system gives majorities to parties with only 25% of the support of the electorate. I'm not just complaining about that regarding the Tories; that's how Blair got in as well. But what Cameron and Blair had in common was that they were both managerialist. They both offer to make your life better by making the economy grow. It'll trickle-down! This will rake in everybody's votes! And since 2008 we've realised that's fundamentally not true. People are sick of managerialist politics.

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People are looking for transformative politics. They are looking for politicians who promise to change things to better their lives. Now that's fine for us on the left, because it allows us to elect someone like Jeremy Corbyn on a popular election. But Nigel Farage and UKIP also offer to change people's lives. Donald Trump also offers to change people's lives. It's not just the UK and the US, it's happening in France with Marine Le Pen, in Germany with the AFD, and in Hungary and Poland. This is happening all over the place. Our challenge is to try and make sure that the transformative politics that come to define this period are positive and humanitarian, rather than negative demagoguery.

That powerlessness you mentioned… There has been much talk about the cynicism of young people with regards to the current political situation, and you mentioned it a bit in your talk at Glastonbury. Personally, I don't think young people are giving into cynicism right now. I think many just feel overwhelmed by this powerlessness. What would you say to those feeling that way?
Listen, I went into the Miners' Strike feeling like that. You know, before the Miners' Strike, if you look at my songwriting, the songs I'm writing are broadly personal – I was just a humanitarian. But experiencing the Miners' Strike up close, and seeing how mainstream politics works when it's threatened – that's what politicised me. That's what led me to write songs like "Between The Wars" and "(There Is) Power In A Union". The Miners' Strike was my political education.

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For young people of Britain today, this is your Miners' Strike. This is your moment. You've just been deprived of opportunities to travel in Europe and work in Europe. How you respond to this? We're in a sort of post-ideological period now – you don't have a completely blank canvas, but you do have the opportunity to stick your own pin in it and say "This is what we think!"

Billy Bragg and Joe Henry

And Jeremy Corbyn the man to help us do that?
As much as I support Jeremy Corbyn, he's actually very 20th century in what he's talking about. Someone who's thinking right now about how to do politics would be talking more about empowering people and devolving power – like Podemos are doing in Spain. Certainly, anyone from the 21st Century would be a much better communicator than Corbyn.

Do you see anyone in the current political system who could be that key player?
Man, the person who's gonna sort all this out isn't even in politics yet. They've just woken up! Think about it: my generation came along because the hippies failed to come up with anything tangible, and before we could achieve anything we had to clear them out the way. Right now, a lot of stuff is being cleared out of the way. There are 48% of people who voted remain who don't currently have a voice. Who is going to give them that voice? Is it gonna be a political party or a movement?

Truth is, it needs someone to think outside of the old left wing box, because there's still too many people around Corbyn who are trying to do politics like we're in the 1980s. We really need to hear from you guys, from your generation. You need to come up with ways of articulating what you think Britain should be like in the 21st century.

Scary.
Exactly. You know how to push you often need someone to push against? Well, they're here. The four horsemen of the apocalypse: Boris Johnson, Priti Patel, Angela Leadsom, Theresa May. They are all here. So, get pushing!

I feel like that's probably a good and dramatic place to end our chat.
Well I think it's a good place to start actually, so why not finish this and go off and sort it all out?

Okay, I'll try.
It's gotta come from your generation, man. It's down to you now. You're the ones who are going to be most affected by all of this in the long term. This is your Miners' Strike.

You can follow Joe Zadeh on Twitter.

Billy Bragg and Joe Henry's 'Shine a Light' is out on Sept 23rd.