Billy Bragg: What the U.K. Supreme Court’s Historic Ruling Against Boris Johnson Means for Brexit

StorySeptember 25, 2019
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The U.K. Parliament has reconvened after the country’s Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that Prime Minister Boris Johnson had unlawfully suspended Parliament in order to push through Brexit with or without a deal. Johnson made the unprecedented move late last month, asking the queen to prorogue Parliament in order to limit debate on leaving the European Union, which the U.K. is scheduled to do by October 31. Calls for Johnson’s resignation are mounting since the news broke, with opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn calling for a general election and demanding Johnson apologize to the queen and to the country. For more on the political crisis in Britain, we speak with legendary British singer and songwriter Billy Bragg. “Really, what’s behind Brexit is ordinary working people feeling they no longer have agency over their lives. … The European Union have become a focus for anger that really should be directed at the Westminster government that Boris Johnson leads,” Bragg says. His new book is “The Three Dimensions of Freedom.”

Transcript
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Billy Bragg singing Woody Guthrie’s song “I Ain’t Got No Home” here in our Democracy Now! studio in 2011. He joins us again in 2019. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. This is Democracy Now!

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, we go now to the United Kingdom, where Parliament has reconvened in an uproar after the Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that Prime Minister Boris Johnson had unlawfully suspended Parliament in order to push through Brexit with or without a deal. Johnson made the unprecedented move late last month, asking the queen to prorogue, or suspend, Parliament in order to limit debate on leaving the European Union, which the U.K. is scheduled to do by October 31st. But Tuesday, Supreme Court head Lady Brenda Hale announced the court had unanimously ruled against Johnson, and Parliament had not been prorogued.

LADY BRENDA HALE: The court is bound to conclude, therefore, that the decision to advise Her Majesty to prorogue Parliament was unlawful, because it had the effect of frustrating or preventing the ability of Parliament to carry out its constitutional functions without reasonable justification. … Parliament has not been prorogued.

AMY GOODMAN: Prorogued, or suspended, she says. Calls for Johnson’s resignation are mounting since the news broke on Tuesday. Opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn has called for a general election and demanded Johnson apologize to the queen and to the country. The House of Commons is currently in the midst of a raucous session as we broadcast. Prime Minister Johnson is expected to address Parliament this afternoon. This is Johnson responding to the Supreme Court’s decision in New York on Tuesday, where he had been attending the United Nations General Assembly.

PRIME MINISTER BORIS JOHNSON: Let’s be absolutely clear: We respect the judiciary in our country. We respect the court. I disagree profoundly with what they had to say. … Frankly, I think we need to get on with Brexit. That’s the overwhelming view of the British people. Whether they voted to leave or remain, they want to get this thing done by October the 31st. And that’s what we’re going to do.

AMY GOODMAN: For more, we’re joined by the legendary British singer-songwriter, activist Billy Bragg. His book, The Three Dimensions of Freedom, has just been published.

Billy, welcome back to Democracy Now!

BILLY BRAGG: Great to be here, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: So, we’re learning a new word in the United States: “prorogued.”

BILLY BRAGG: Yes, “prorogue,” yeah, suspend. I mean, normally this time of year there is a suspension of Parliament, because the three main parties have their party conventions in consecutive weeks. This week was the Labour Party; last week, the Liberal Democrats; next week, the Conservatives. So there normally is a break off of Parliament here.

What Boris did was introduce the idea of a new Queen’s Speech, which is when the government put forward a new program, and they generally suspend Parliament for a couple of weeks to get that ready. When you add that to the time suspended for the party conventions, with the deadline for leaving the European Union coming at the end of October, all of a sudden it looked as if — well, it was, it’s been proved quite there — that he’s unlawfully suspended Parliament in order to avoid accountability over his lack of a deal for the European Union.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, of course, all of this is to continue the controversy over Brexit and what to do about Brexit. You’ve said that Brexit is an English phenomenon and an English nationalist phenomenon. Could you talk about that?

BILLY BRAGG: It is. Sure. The vote for it is really concentrated in England. Scotland voted a majority against. Northern Ireland voted a majority against. Wales voted in favor, but in those areas where there are predominantly English incomers. So, the English don’t have clear representation in our national devolved Parliament. So, Scots have a Parliament. The Welsh have an Assembly. The Northern Irish do. But the English don’t. And slowly but surely, they’re trying to manifest that sensibility.

And really, what’s behind Brexit is ordinary working people feeling they no longer have agency over their lives. They feel that the economy is no longer responding to them, that politics doesn’t work for them — in many ways, similar to the people, I think, who voted for Trump in the United States of America. And this lack of agency, this feeling that they can no longer have control over their lives, is magnified by the European Union, they feel, because they are — obviously, they are distant. They’re in Brussels. And although we all get to vote in the elections, we don’t have that close connection with them. So, the European Union have become a focus for anger that really should be directed at the Westminster government that Boris Johnson leads.

AMY GOODMAN: So, you’ve compared a no-deal Brexit to Trump’s border wall. Why?

BILLY BRAGG: Well, I think Brexit, period, and the border wall are both really chimera. It doesn’t matter if they happen or not. It’s what they offer Trump and what they offer the Conservatives in my country. As long as there’s a plan to leave the European Union or a plan to build the wall, this will act as a clear signal to every bigot, every racist, every misogynist in the United States of America or in the U.K. that their ideas are legitimized by this notion of keeping people out, this notion of closing in on ourselves.

I don’t think that Brexit will happen. I think that the cost of it, in terms of peace in Northern Ireland and our long-term relationship with the other 27 nations in Europe, is too high a cost for legislators to actually pass it. We’ve already seen — because there was an opportunity at the end of March for us to have left the European Union, but the hard-line Brexiteers, who want a hard-line Brexit, didn’t support their own government. So, on one hand, there’s those of us who want to remain in the European Union. We believe the cost is too high. But the hard-line Brexiteers, who would have had to deal with a compromise over the relationship with Europe — there would have still been some involvement with the European Court, there would have still been some trade agreements — that was too high a price for them. So, I think, for both sides —

AMY GOODMAN: Like the grandson of Winston Churchill.

BILLY BRAGG: Yeah, the grandson of Winston — well, no, not him, because he’s more of a middle-way man. I’m talking about what we call the — they’re referred to as the European Research Group. And these are the people who want to leave with absolutely no deal. They’re quite extreme.

And the problem is, broadly, the debate has become extreme on both sides. There’s either people who want to leave with no deal or people who want to just abandon the whole thing, where, actually, what’s going to keep us in the European Union, I believe, is nuance. It’s the nuance of the Irish border. It’s the nuance of the Good Friday peace accord. It’s the nuance of our trade with the European Union. But nobody seems interested in nuance.

Jeremy Corbyn is trying to put forward a policy at the next election where he let’s the people decide, where he says, “Look, you know, if you elect me, I will go to Brussels, get a better deal. I will put it to a referendum. The opportunity to remain will be on the referendum. But you ultimately will decide.” The Liberal Democrats are saying, “We’re just going to abandon the whole thing and walk away.” The Tories are saying, “We’re just going to get no deal,” which really nobody voted for that. That’s a disastrous outcome. So, Corbyn, strangely, has become the moderate, which actually has become a bit of a pejorative term in my country recently.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I want to ask you about your book, The Three Dimensions of Freedom. If you could talk about the title itself?

BILLY BRAGG: Sure. Well, basically, it argues that free speech alone is not enough to guarantee a free society. You know, it’s true that we all have the right to express our opinion. But unless that is matched with a commitment to equality, the right to respect other people’s opinions, but, more importantly, some amount of accountability — I think, without equality, free speech is nothing more than privilege. But without accountability, free speech is the most dangerous freedom of all, and that’s impunity. And I think we’ve seen both in Donald Trump and in Boris Johnson, leaders who are seeking to act with impunity. The last leader in my country that acted in the way Boris Johnson has done was Charles I. And we chopped his head off.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you very much, Billy Bragg. This is Part 1 of our conversation. We’re going to do Part 2, and we’re going to post it online at democracynow.org and also maybe get a little live singing in. Billy Bragg, the legendary British singer-songwriter. He has a new book out. It’s called The Three Dimensions of Freedom. It’s just been published. We’ll be doing a public conversation tonight at 7:30 at the Brooklyn Public Library. Come one, come all.

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