Billy Bragg and the Fight for a New Australia

By | 23 August 2004

Thatcherism was the name given to the tide of economic rationalism that swept through Britain in the 1980's. It was a series of often forceful policy reforms and social upheavals that transformed the nation economically, politically, socially and philosophically. Musically, the nation was mute. The original f&^k you of punk's first wave, which was quite often only ever protest for protests sake, had all but died. In its place the superficiality of New Wave and the introspection of Goth reigned supreme.

Throughout her Prime Ministership Margaret Thatcher was an aggressive proponent of individualism, private enterprise and consumer culture. She sought to simultaneously strengthen central government and curb the powers of local government. A virulent anti-unionist, she demonstrated her capacity for industrial violence in the miners strikes of 84-85. She was also responsible for the privatisation of great swathes of infrastructure including British Telecom, British Steel and British Gas. Across the Atlantic she found a willing ally in Ronald Reagan.

Her policies polarised the nation. Adrian Mole angrily posed the question: “Do you wake with 'Three million' on your brain?/ Are you sorry that they'll never work again?/ When you're dressing in your blue, do you see the waiting queue?/Do you weep, Mrs Thatcher, do you weep?” And a 21 y.o., gravel-voiced army dropout from Essex stopped working in a music store and took up arms.

Billy Bragg's break came when Kristy MacColl, who would go on to collaborate with The Smiths and The Rolling Stones, went Top Ten with a song he'd written for her. “A New England” is the parting shot from a lonely girl trying to carve out a life amidst grimy tenements and broken dreams: “All the girls I knew at school are already pushing prams”. She's is resolved to leaving her distant boyfriend: “I loved you then and I love you still/ Though I put you on a pedestal you put me on the pill/ I don't feel bad about letting you go/ I just feel sad about letting you know.” This is the universe of the early songs of Billy Bragg, a wasteland of broken promises and lost opportunities, of mobile homes and shotgun weddings, disability payouts and suicides.

He sings about a divisive society; a climate of economic and consumer competitiveness that fosters discord. “Theirs is a land of hope and glory/ Mine is the green field and the factory floor” the everyman of “Between the Wars” cries resentfully. After swallowing the myths of nationalism and labour “and raising a family/ in a time of prosperity/ with sweat at the foundry- and as times got harder/ I looked to the government/ to help the working man.” He is resigned: “I've come to see/ in the land of the free/ there's only a future/ for the chosen few.” The characters of songs are the forgotten people, the scorched underbelly of the fat pig of economic rationalism. In “To Have and Have Not” an unemployed high school graduate growls: “Qualifications, what's the golden rule?/ Are now just pieces of paper- It's a buyers market/ They can afford to pick and choose.”

But Bragg wasn't content to just sit on the sidelines and write protest songs. In 1984, following the Thatcher Government's decision to close coal mines employing more than 20,000 miners, the National Union of Miners declared a national strike. The strike was ruled illegal and police moved in to allow strike breakers to go to work. For a year the miners maintained picket lines across the country. Bragg played an active roll in supporting the miners and the event helped solidify his socialist beliefs.

In 1987 he formed Red Wedge with Paul Weller. It was a broadly socialist crew of singers, musicians and actors, including members of the Fine Young Cannibals, The Specials and The Damned as well as actor Robbie Coltrane, committed to blocking another Thatcher victory. However they were unsuccessful and the group disbanded in disillusion. Detractors smugly pointed out, that pop singers had no place in politics.

Bragg himself mused something similar: “Mixing pop and politics he asks me what the use is/ I offer him embarrassment and my usual excuses/ While looking down the corridor/ Out to where the van is waiting/ I'm looking for the Great Leap Forwards …”

But the career of Billy Bragg has proved the political value of pop just as history has always affirmed the essential relationship between art and politics. Indeed there have been certain episodes in history where the artist has a responsibility to be political.

Against this background, then, it is fair to say that the music of Billy Bragg has a unique relevance for contemporary Australian ears. After all John Howard's affection for Attila the Hen (and all things British) is widely known. Many of his policies have closely resembled hers. They share a similar drive for privatisation. Both nurtured consumerism, a trend that has seen levels of personal debt rise to giddying levels in Australia. Howard's contempt for unions was evident in the bitter waterfront strike of 1998. His attitudes towards social services and education have been divisive and risk entrenching a class system that Australia has, for a large part, been free from. Real rates of unemployment are hidden by the increased casualisation of the workforce and the broadening of the definition of employment. We have become the country that former Prime Minister Billy Hughes warned against when he spoke about the “ruthless greed now animating modern society [dominated] by individualism, free competition, and survival of the fittest, in which one was free to get rich and one was free to stay poor”. And unfortunately the natural extension of this is a state no longer characterised “by individualism and competition, but monopoly [when] the day of the Behemoth of Industry [is] upon.”

And then there are the sins that Howard has made his own: his cruel and inhumane detention of asylum seekers, his reactionary response to reconciliation and native title and his fawning support for the Bush Administration. We have charged blindly into war in search of weapons of mass destruction that many experts, including some within the Pentagon, believe never existed. In doing so Howard has betrayed our international responsibility and magnified the threat of a terrorist attack on Australia. As Bragg points out: “And the fate of the great United States/ affects us all/-/And the cities of Europe have burned before/ and they may yet burn again”. The massacres of innocent civilians has been downplayed as a sorry by-product of regime change. The failure of our Navy to deny assistance to asylum seekers on SIEV-X, which resulted in the deaths of 397 people, is an anomaly of the Pacific Solution. To detain men, women and children indefinitely in the interests of national security

We do not live in kind times. We do not live in generous times. The individual is paramount and consequently almost anything, with the right spin, is ethically justifiable. One of the major challenges facing contemporary Australian artists is the challenge to contribute to the struggle against the status quo. To use art, in any form, as vehicle of critique, of ideas and of opinions. And a vehicle of hope..

In 1988 Bragg penned “Waiting for the Great Leap Forwards” attacking Western society's stubborn refusal to learn from the mistakes of history: “In the Soviet Union a scientist is blinded/ By the resumption of nuclear testing/ And he is reminded/ That Dr. Robert Oppenheimer's optimism fell/ At the first hurdle.” It is a joyful song; part paean to Socialism and part satire of the clich?¬©s that often get attached to it. The song is imbued with the hope that animated Billy Hughes when he hoped that “[c]ompetion would be replaced by co-operation”. It is a hope we desperately need. The atrocities, committed by both “legal” and “illegal” terrorists and combatants, filling our newspapers are a testament to the lack of progress humanity has made.

After all a murder, precision guided or not, is still a murder. And that's where waiting for the great leap forward comes in. It's the shining hope of change. Without it, we have little choice but to accept that the inhumanity and barbarity we have demonstrated for millennia is an essential and inseparable element of our being. For my own part I choose not to believe this. Perhaps its best leaving the last word to Fidel Castro's brother who “spies a rich lady who's crying/ over luxury's disappointment/ so he walks over and he's trying/ to sympathise with her but he thinks that he should warn her/ that the Third World is just around the corner”.

Image: “Flying Bin” by Louise Molloy.

This entry was posted in ESSAYS and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

Related work:

Comments are closed.