A New Britain? Billy Bragg On Brexit And The Nation’s Future

In the week that Theresa May became Prime Minister and Jeremy Corbyn lives to fight another day, Barking singer and political activist Billy Bragg gives us his view on politics, Brexit and Britain’s future.

Billy Bragg: “Since the Brexit result, our political environment has shattered. The Brexiteers have been mown down like characters in Game Of Thrones and the Labour Party has jumped off the end of the pier and tried to get rid of Jeremy Corbyn, who was elected with a bigger mandate than any other Labour candidate before him. It’s hard to keep up. There was a gap in the rain the other morning and I went for a walk. When I came back Theresa May was Prime Minister. Everything’s up in the air.

“People aren’t buying into the politics being offered”

The nation is at a fork in the road. Politics has been trying to realign itself ever since the Conservatives went into coalition with the Liberal Democrats [in 2010]. When a system that’s meant to give strong governments fails to give a strong government, then clearly people aren’t buying into the politics being offered.

The public’s mood has been misjudged on a number of issues: the Scottish referendum, the election of Jeremy Corbyn and the EU vote. The political class of the 1990s – centrist, Blairite politics that doesn’t really offer anything except economic growth – has finally had its day. People are no longer looking for politicians who promise to manage the economy. Instead they’re looking for someone who will either listen to them or change things. It’s a move to a more transformative politics. If people believe their vote counts they’ll participate – you saw that with the referendum.

People realised they had an opportunity and they voted for change. I don’t agree with that, but you’ve got to recognise there’s a feeling out there. It wasn’t just David Cameron that assumed British people would vote remain, it was all parties apart from UKIP.

“There’s a sense that, as a nation, we’ve totally fucking flipped out”

The referendum was all things to all people: immigration, multiculturalism, the speed of change, modernity, metropolitan elites. It was about what the EU stood for – it became an object into which you could load any general anger you had with the world. Not everybody was voting cynically but the overall result was probably swung by people who, for five or 10 years, have seen everything they hoped would happen cancelled by events beyond their control, thinking, ‘Here’s an opportunity to hit back at the ruling class’.

This is probably the most tumultuous period I’ve experienced. The [1984-85] miners’ strike was a terrible period but it was clear what each side was doing. The thing about Brexit is we don’t know. We’re through the looking glass. There’s no plan or direction. At least with an election the government has a mandate and a roadmap. There’s nothing in the referendum result that gives a steer on what to do. When the Prime Minister resigns and the Labour party try to overthrow the leader, the sense that as a nation we’ve totally fucking flipped out is just underscored.

It hasn’t ended yet. You’ve now got a Remain Prime Minister in Theresa May who’s got to negotiate the Brexit deal. The Leavers who won have been chased from the field, which is quite shocking. Those that weren’t chased walked anyway, like Nigel Farage. ‘Good luck with it! See ya!’ Where’s the responsibility in that?

It defies belief, and the fact is we’re doing this is because David Cameron wanted to sure up his party against angry Eurosceptic backbenchers. Now we’re adrift politically, possibly economically and certainly emotionally.

“Music can make you feel like you’re not the only one who cares about this shit”

I was at Glastonbury when it went down. Corbyn was supposed to come and speak but the coup put an end to that. We spent the weekend trying to make sense of it. I was on stage the night of the result and the tent was rammed. It was very emotional. They made this noise when I went on that they’d normally make when I finish. Music can make you feel like you’re not the only one who cares about this shit. At Glastonbury there were a lot of people in favour of remaining, in fact the BBC couldn’t find anyone to speak up for leave in a Green Fields debate. Then they found one person in the audience and when he stood up he was wearing a t-shirt that said ‘tell your boobs to stop staring at my eyes’. For fuck’s sake.

“Young people can’t give in to cynicism”

As far as what young people can do, those that didn’t vote probably didn’t think the country would be daft enough [to leave]. The first time I could vote in 1979 I was a snotty nosed punk rocker and I didn’t bother. What happened? Margaret Thatcher got elected. Within a year I realised that she would threaten things I’d taken for granted. These people have woken up on that Friday and suddenly everything’s changed. We live in a different society. I don’t blame them for imagining it couldn’t have happened, but the question is what do you do now it has?

The temptation is to give in to cynicism, but you’ve got to overcome that and engage in building a different consensus. The rising attacks against immigrants since the referendum have clearly legitimised the racism that’s been bubbling away. As much as I am willing to support any movement that takes on the xenophobic element legitimised by the Brexit result, it’s up to young people to manifest that. We need to hear what you think and you need to find a way to articulate that. There are lots of different mediums you can use to talk about the world. Young people need to articulate themselves because if they don’t, others will speak for them, like Theresa May. I’m hoping Brexit will galvanise a new generation of activists and artists who have something to say about the world and want their voice heard.

They don’t need to give me graphs and details, I want to know how they feel. We tried to argue the case for Remain by using facts and figures but it didn’t work – we couldn’t break through the shield of cynicism that built up after 30 years of negative headlines in the Daily Mail. Some people don’t like to talk about these issues because they fear they’ll get abuse online. But no one can tell you how to feel. You’ve got to be able to articulate that and let people build from there.”

Billy Bragg and Joe Henry release ‘Shine A Light’ via Cooking Vinyl on September 23

As told to Ben Homewood