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Billy Bragg Performs & Talks About Brexit, Boris Johnson & “The Three Dimensions of Freedom”

Web ExclusiveSeptember 27, 2019
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The legendary singer Billy Bragg performs three songs in the Democracy Now! studio. He also talks about the political crisis in Britain and his new book, “The Three Dimensions of Freedom.”

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

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. As major political developments unfold on both sides of the Atlantic, we’re joined now in our New York studio by Billy Bragg, the legendary British singer-songwriter. In addition to songs, he has just written his fourth book, about the tools we have to dismantle authoritarianism. Newly published, it’s titled The Three Dimensions of Freedom. It has three chapters: “Liberty,” “Equality” and “Accountability.”

In the book, Billy Bragg writes, “Liberty is cherished because it empowers us to think, speak and act as we wish, providing the foundation of freedom. However, further dimensions are required to secure that right for the many and to protect it from the powerful.”

Billy Bragg, it’s great to have you with us.

BILLY BRAGG: Great to be here, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: So, we are here just as Boris Johnson fled the — I’m not saying because of you coming here. But I did just see him over at the United Nations addressing the U.N. General Assembly. But because of the Supreme Court decision in Britain that said that he acted illegally —

BILLY BRAGG: Unlawfully.

AMY GOODMAN: What is the difference?

BILLY BRAGG: “Illegally” would suggest he’s going to go to jail; I think that would be a criminal offense. “Unlawfully” means he’s kind of bent the law for his own benefit.

AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about what it was that he requested of the queen exactly, and what that meant for the queen to assent.

BILLY BRAGG: Yeah. We don’t have a written constitution in the U.K. Our constitution is based on an agreement between the Crown and Parliament that was reached in 1689, which we refer to as the constitutional monarchy. And in that, the government has what we call prerogative powers, which are powers that used to belong to the Crown but now belong to the government. They are the right to declare war, the right to sign treaties and the right to prorogue Parliament — all of these without debate in Parliament.

And as a result of Boris Johnson wishing to cut down any further debate about the possibility of a deal with the European Union before the deadline, which is coming up on Halloween, he decided to introduce this break in Parliament, on the grounds that he’s preparing a new Queen’s Speech. And the Queen’s Speech is kind of part of this archaic notion of the Crown and Parliament. What happens is, the government are going to announce that this is their program for the next year, but the queen has to come into Parliament and sit on a big golden throne and say, “My Parliament will,” and then list the things. Although it’s called the Queen’s Speech, it’s the government’s speech, but the kind of constitutional flummery — they all get to dress up. It’s like a fabulous episode of Downton Abbey mixed with elements of Hamilton.

And a lot of our constitution is about convention. So, if you get a figure like Boris Johnson, who all of his life has acted with impunity, whether he’s acted as a journalist, in his relationships, and now in Parliament, those conventions can be just, you know, railroaded over. And that’s what he’s done.

And all of the Supreme Court has done in making this decision is handed power back to where it should be, which is in Parliament, because the role of Parliament is to hold the executive — the prime minister, the government — to account. And that’s what the Supreme Court have decided yesterday.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Prime Minister Boris Johnson — and I don’t know if you’ve gotten used to saying “Prime Minister Johnson” —

BILLY BRAGG: It’s hard.

AMY GOODMAN: — wanted a no-deal Brexit in place by October 31st. Explain, especially for an American audience and those outside Britain, those outside the United Kingdom, in a few sentences, what Brexit means.

BILLY BRAGG: What Brexit means, means the implementation of a decision made by a referendum in June 2016 to leave the European Union. It was a very close result, 52% in favor of leaving, 48% in favor of remaining.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think if it was taken today, that would be the same result?

BILLY BRAGG: It would be close. I think it may be the other way, but I think it will be just as close. The figures look as if it will be just as close. Either way, it doesn’t really offer the kind of endorsement you need if you’re going to make law by plebiscite. Now, most countries don’t make law by plebiscite. The Swiss do. They have a different type of democracy. But if you have law by plebiscite, it makes the role of a Parliament rather difficult, because we’re going to leave the European Union — well, how? How are we going to leave the European — it’s the —

AMY GOODMAN: And what did those who wanted Brexit say you gain by leaving the European Union? And what does this mean for Ireland, for Scotland, for Wales?

BILLY BRAGG: Oh, well, the argument is that we can do our own trade deals with the world if we wish to. We don’t have to do trade deals with the European — you know, in the context of the European Union. But the implications for that are that we will be a very small country in between a number of very powerful blocs — the EU itself, obviously, the United States of America and China. We wouldn’t have the power.

You know, the EU allows us to punch above our weight. And the proof of that is the way that Ireland, a member of the European Union, has been able to halt the whole process by saying, “We’re not happy with the deal that Britain are offering with regard to maintaining the open border,” which is an absolute key aspect of the peace process in Northern Ireland, that fought to —

AMY GOODMAN: Explain that. Explain that border and why it’s so key.

BILLY BRAGG: Why it’s so key, the war in Ireland, what’s referred to euphemistically as “the Troubles,” which lasted from 1969 until the mid-'90s, was all about the identity of people in Northern Ireland, whether they were British or whether they were Irish. Because Britain and Ireland are both members of the European Union, it's possible for both the Northern Irish and the Irish to be Europeans, to sort of suspend the aspect of their identity that is divisive, and instead, because both states are members of the European Union, for them to have an open border between their country. And this was a soft landing place for years of painful confrontation. And it made it because then it was a place for the unionists and the nationalists in Ireland to meet. The people in Ireland voted in a referendum to drop their claim in the North. We voted for it by putting in a Parliament that could get the peace deal. It was the best thing that was achieved by Tony Blair, by far. Nobody in their right mind would do anything to jeopardize it.

But if Britain leaves the European Union, then our one frontier with the EU will be the frontier between the U.K. and the Republic of Ireland. So, there will need to be a border there, because —

AMY GOODMAN: Northern Ireland being a part of the U.K.

BILLY BRAGG: Being part of the U.K.

AMY GOODMAN: Ireland, a separate country.

BILLY BRAGG: Indeed, yeah. The border in Ireland will be the frontier. And as a result of that, because there will be different — for instance, there will be different trade standards. There will need to be some checks there. And this —

AMY GOODMAN: It would become a hard border.

BILLY BRAGG: It would be a hard border. And becoming a hard border would reignite, we fear, the division in the North between the nationalists and the unionists. So, this is — one of the suggestions is that they put the border in the Irish Sea, so then, you know, Great Britain, the island, the big island of Great Britain, would be out of the EU, but Northern Ireland would be in a kind of in-between part. And, of course, this is anathema to the unionists in the North who believe in the union of the United Kingdom and want to be part of the United Kingdom. So, you know, it’s a no-win situation all around if we mess it up on the border.

AMY GOODMAN: Were you surprised by the High Court’s decision?

BILLY BRAGG: I was surprised it was unanimous. I expected it to be a lot closer than that. The fact it was 11 to zero was really, really shocking, because we’re not used to having the Supreme Court involve themselves in political decisions. In fact, we’ve only had a Supreme Court for a decade, really. It’s not something that’s — we’ve had judges who have sat in the House of Lords and have deliberated on the constitution. But we haven’t had the idea of a Supreme Court that individuals can refer to. So, this is a big constitutional moment for us and maybe a beginning of a path towards a written constitution.

AMY GOODMAN: The opposition leader, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, has called on Prime Minister Boris Johnson to resign.

JEREMY CORBYN: Boris Johnson has been found to have misled the country. This unelected prime minister should now resign.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Jeremy Corbyn. He gave that speech right after the High Court decision. Talk about Boris Johnson’s record as the prime minister — very short-lived, at this point, prime ministership — all of the defeats that he has suffered and what this means. And give us a little biography of him and his family.

BILLY BRAGG: Well, Boris Johnson comes from a family who have always been involved in politics. His father was a member of the European Parliament. Boris himself was born here in New York while his father was here, I believe on a diplomatic role. So, he comes from a kind of political family. He went to Eton, a primary private school, the biggest — the private school the royal family all go to.

He then went on to Oxford University, where, you know, he’s shown there, and went initially into journalism and found a role as writing kind of jokey articles about the European Union, about their — he extrapolated from some of their rules arguments in favor of banning bent bananas. The European Union never had a rule, but he kind of, in a sort of, I suppose, sort of sarcastic, Swiftian kind of way with his humor, and found that that kind of — that tone worked very well with Tory members. They love a bit of foreigner bashing in the European Union, because it seeks to regulate the economy in the U.K. Many Tories are free marketeers against regulation. You know, he kind of became the cheerleader for what we refer to as Euroscepticism.

When the referendum came, he wrote two letters: one letter saying he would support Remain and one letter saying that he would — rather, two articles: one article for The Daily Telegraph saying he would support Remain, the other saying he would support Leave — and decided on the actual day that the referendum was called that he would go with Leave. So, you know, he’s not — he’s not managed to have a great deal of commitment to the ideas that he believes in.

He’s always wanted to be prime minister. He’s finally got the job. And if —

AMY GOODMAN: And explain how he got it. I mean —


AMY GOODMAN: — not exactly a countrywide vote.

BILLY BRAGG: No. In order to be the prime minister of Britain, you need to first be a member of Parliament, and, secondly, to be the leader of the party that has a majority in the House of Commons. So, the Conservative Party and their membership are able to dethrone a leader and then have another election among themselves. There’s about 90,000 of them. Most of them are over the age of 50 and are male and white. They can then have an election to give us a new prime minister without there being a general election. And this has now happened twice. Theresa May got the job when she was put in after David Cameron resigned over the failure to win the referendum.

So, Boris doesn’t really have a mandate. And he wants to have a general election, because there’s currently a stalemate in Parliament. He has lost all six of the votes he’s put before Parliament in his short reign of less than two months. I mean, nobody has — I mean, if he was a cricketer, he would be fired by now. He’d be knocked out six times.

AMY GOODMAN: And his brother quit. His brother said, finally, “I put my country over family.”

BILLY BRAGG: His brother, who was a minister in his government, quit over it. His sister, who was quite supportive of him, she’s also turned against him. His father is — I haven’t heard what he said, but he’s a strong pro-European, so I don’t know how he feels about this.

But the real key thing about Johnson is his refusal to be held to account for the things that he has done. One of the very strange things about him is that he’s notorious for his relationships. No one is absolutely sure how many children he’s sired. It’s a matter of debate. He’s currently, at the moment — underneath everything else that’s going on, there’s a scandal about some — when he was mayor of London, some money that he gave to an American businesswoman. And there’s an implication there that there may have been a deeper relationship there, that people are looking into at the moment.

So, he has this reputation of being — having a rather pained relationship with the truth. And this has come to the fore in the need to get a deal with the European Union. He says he wants a deal, but he’s acting in a way that he’s tried to make us leave without a deal. And the reason why I believe he’s doing that is because if he actually tried to put a deal together, the price would be so high in terms of the relationship with Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, with our relationship to our European neighbors economically. It will be so high that nobody would vote for it.

Brexit has to be a — almost like a Schrödinger’s cat idea, that if you really begin to put any bones on it, as Theresa May did — she came back with a deal that was agreed with the European Union — no one will vote for it, because it was ridiculous to see what loops we would have to jump through in terms of trade, in terms of the 3.1 million European citizens who live and work and have families in our country. You know, it takes away the foundations of so much of our economy, it’s ridiculous.

But it remains for the Conservative Party their key policy now. They’ve become an English nationalist party, the Conservative Party. And it’s quite troubling, in the sense that something that began as a way of rallying their troops has now become an obsession with them, to the extent that they’re even willing to mislead the queen. That’s a pretty big deal.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain how the queen was misled.

BILLY BRAGG: In order for Johnson to suspend Parliament, in constitutional terms, he has to have the queen’s permission to do that. You know, if there’s going to be an election, he has to go and say to the queen, “Could you please dissolve Parliament?” And if there’s a new prime minister, the prime minister has to go to see the queen and say, “Could you please make me prime minister?” This is part of this Crown in Parliament, you know, constitutional monarchy business.

So, he had to go — or he sent someone to see the queen in Balmoral while she was on her summer holidays — never a good idea to interrupt her summer holidays — to say, “We need to suspend Parliament, because I’m going to get a new Queen’s Speech together.”

Now that’s shown to be unlawful by the Supreme Court. So, he asked the the queen to sign up to an unlawful act. And this is kind of — it’s beyond the pale. I would imagine that’s beyond the pale even for Conservative supporters. But the fact that they are complaining about it suggests that they are so gung-ho for Brexit that they’re willing to overturn any constitutional niceties in order to get there. And I think that notion of acting with impunity, of refusing to be held accountable, even by the standards of our Supreme Court and our constitutional monarchy, is very, very troubling.

AMY GOODMAN: Through this absolute crisis, you had President Trump coming over for a royal visit in the last days of Prime Minister Theresa May, but also backing Boris Johnson, who many say he looks just like, and the massive protests that met President Trump. You have that baby blimp that went up —


AMY GOODMAN: — of President Trump as a — you know, as a baby in diapers with his cellphone, I think. But the comparisons of Trump and Boris Johnson? In 2018, Johnson made comments in a column in a newspaper, comparing Muslim women who wear the hijab to letterboxes and bank robbers.

BILLY BRAGG: Yeah, it’s very much in the Trump mold. Not only is he willing to make racist statements, he refuses to apologize for them, as well. You know, freedom of speech allows you to express your opinion. What it doesn’t allow you to do is to make abusive statements with no comeback. And, I mean, that’s the sort of center of what I’m writing about in my book. The free speech, everyone has the right to free speech. It is the foundation of liberty. But if we’re going to have liberty with, you know, the right to say whatever you want to say, with no responsibility, then we really are starting a slow slide towards a soft authoritarianism.

And that is the key aspect of what is similar with Trump and with Johnson. And that is that not all freedom is good. There is a type of freedom that is very dangerous, and that is impunity. And when you have someone who’s been democratically elected who acts with impunity in the way that Trump does and the way that Johnson does, then I think we are slowly drifting towards a more authoritarian type of democracy, because although people think democracy and accountability are synonymous, they’re not, I don’t think. I think their relationship is more akin to a Venn diagram. And sometimes, in terms of consensus, you know, there’s a lot of coverage in that, a lot of overlap. But at the moment, they’ve been pushed apart by Boris Johnson, by Donald Trump and their supporters.

And I think what we saw just recently, with the Supreme Court decision in the U.K. and the Democrats’ decision to go for impeachment with Trump, are people trying to push back against that slide towards authoritarianism, to say, “No, you cannot do this with impunity, thus far, no further.”

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Billy Bragg, the legendary British singer-songwriter. He has a new book out. It’s called The Three Dimensions of Freedom. And, Billy, you begin the book with two quotes, one of Donald Trump — “When you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything.” Of course, in that case, he’s talking
about women and sexually assaulting women, which he proudly describes.


AMY GOODMAN: And then you’ve got the late, great Tony Benn, who says, “If one meets a powerful person, ask them five questions: 'What power have you got? Where did you get it from? In whose interests do you exercise it? To whom are you accountable? And how can we get rid of you?'” Explain why you chose this.

BILLY BRAGG: Well, I think — I’m not sure I would have been writing a book like this 10 years ago. I don’t think the issue of accountability would be so central to what we were talking about. You know, I’d be arguing about accountability in terms of the free market. My arguments would be focused on aspects of neoliberalism.

But I think the rise of Donald Trump, specifically with that attitude he expressed there, is genuinely disturbing, and not only in his behavior, but in a way it kind of gives signs to those people in society who wish to behave in that kind of way. You know, by his very existence, he’s given a free — a free go to people who are — to sexists, to misogynists, to racists. And in many ways, Boris Johnson reflects that. There’s that same undercurrent in our society.

And if we don’t hold these people to account, if we don’t say, you know, “Yeah, you’re free to say those things, but you’re not free to say them with impunity, you know, that you are going to be held accountable to it” — because what everybody says is they make these abusive statements, they make these racist statements, sexist statements; then, when they’re challenged, they throw up their hands and say, “Oh, you’re not allowed to say this anymore.” Well, you’ve already said it, mate, first and foremost.

But freedom isn’t about being able to say whatever you want, whenever you want, to whoever you want, with no comeback. Freedom really is about a society which is at ease with itself. And if the powerful cannot be held to account, they’re not going to trample over everybody else’s rights, rights to free speech, rights to equality and rights to hold those in power to account.

AMY GOODMAN: In your book, you write about history. You look at the economic — various economic theorists. And you talk about The Constitution of Liberty, in which Friedrich Hayek argues the greater threat to freedom is the regulation of markets.

BILLY BRAGG: Yeah. Well, that’s a book — in Hayek’s book, he defines “liberty” as the right to, you know, sort of buy and sell — the right to exploit, really. I don’t think that’s a good definition of freedom. You know, that’s an aspect of capitalism. Freedom really is about having agency over your own life. And I think much of the problems that we have with Brexit, and perhaps here with Trump in this country, is coming from ordinary working people who no longer feel their voices heard by central government, their views are represented, and that they have no real agency over their lives.

How do we deliver agency to them? Well, there’s a number of ways to do that. One will be having a fair voting system in which everybody’s vote counted. Neither your system nor ours in the U.K. does that. You know, if I don’t elect a local MP — and I don’t; he’s always a Tory — my vote just goes in the bin. So, a fairer voting system would help do that.

But really, you’ve got to make people feel as if they have an investment in the progress of society. And I think neoliberalism has failed to do that. It’s actually delivered huge rewards to those at the top of the earning scale, whilst leaving those at the bottom, the majority of people, with having to work three or four jobs in order just to survive.

AMY GOODMAN: You’ve compared a no-deal Brexit to Trump’s proposed border wall. In Part 1 of our conversation, you talked about that. But I was wondering if you could introduce here your first song that you’ll be performing, “Why We Build the Wall.”


AMY GOODMAN: And talk about its origins.

BILLY BRAGG: Of course. “Why We Build the Wall” was a song written by Anaïs Mitchell, who’s from Vermont. She wrote a fabulous musical called Hadestown, which is a retelling of the story of Orpheus in the Underworld. And in the context of that, it’s Orpheus that’s singing the song, and he’s talking about how they keep people in or out of Hades. But since Anaïs wrote that song, the “wall,” in inverted commas, has taken on a completely different meaning. It’s a good example of how you write a song, and you think it’s about one thing, and then suddenly you find it’s actually totally about something totally different.

The first time I heard Anaïs sing this song, she was on tour with me in Europe. It was a long time ago, before — I’m not even sure that she had recorded the Hadestown album. And it struck me immediately that it was really about, in our context, what we call Fortress Europe, the efforts of the European Union to keep migrants across the other side of the Mediterranean, which I don’t think is a particularly good thing. So I was very drawn to the song.

And over the — obviously, since the election campaign here in the U.S. and the election of Donald Trump, the wall has become a chimera. It doesn’t matter if it ever gets built; it acts as a beacon to every bigot, every, you know, anti-immigrant — every xenophobe, to show that their views are totally acceptable. And it’s the same with Brexit. Brexit does the same thing. You know, we don’t need to build a wall, because we’re on an island. But I can assure you, if we weren’t, then during the Brexit campaign, people would have been talking about building a wall.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to Billy Bragg, the legendary British singer-songwriter, singing “Why We Build the Wall.”

BILLY BRAGG: [performing “Why We Build the Wall”]

Why do we build the wall?
My children, my children
Why do we build the wall?
Why do we build the wall?
We build the wall to keep us free
That’s why we build the wall
We build the wall to keep us free

How does the wall keep us free?
My children, my children
How does the wall keep us free?
How does the wall keep us free?
The wall keeps out the enemy
And we build the wall to keep us free
That’s why we build the wall
We build the wall to keep us free

Who do we call the enemy?
My children, my children
Who do we call the enemy?
Who do we call the enemy?
The enemy is poverty
And the wall keeps out the enemy
And we build the wall to keep us free
That’s why we build the wall
We build the wall to keep us free

Because we have and they have not!
My children, my children
Because they want what we have got!
Because we have and they have not!
The enemy is poverty
And the wall keeps out the enemy
And we build the wall to keep us free
That’s why we build the wall
We build the wall to keep us free

What do we have that they should want?
My children, my children
What do we have that they should want?
What do we have that they should want?
We have a wall to work upon!
We have work and they have none
And our work is never done
My children, my children
And the war is never won
The enemy is poverty
And the wall keeps out the enemy
And we build the wall to keep us free
That’s why we build the wall
We build the wall to keep us free
We build the wall to keep us free.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Billy Bragg, British singer-songwriter, activist, singing Anaïs Mitchell’s “Why We Build the Wall.” Anaïs Mitchell, well known for her now Tony Award-winning Broadway play Hadestown. So, you divide the book into three parts. You talk about liberty, you talk about equality, and you talk about accountability. Let’s go to equality, Billy.

BILLY BRAGG: I think equality is really crucial. In terms of free speech, very often those who are taking a stand on free speech these days tend to be people who don’t really want to be challenged. They want to put their view across, but they don’t want anyone to criticize them. Well, a crucial aspect of freedom is that everybody gets to express their opinion, and, in that, we need to treat each other in a respectful way and listen to the other person’s point of view and respond to that in a respectful way, rather than go immediately to outrage or disdain, spite, abuse.

The book doesn’t only focus on the nature of authoritarianism, neoliberalism, the rise of algorithms. I’m also trying to help set a framework for our social media discourse, in how we talk to one another online. And I think that, in those terms, equality, having respect for the views of others, is absolutely key to being able to turn our social media discourse into something much more deliberative, something much more — in which we can learn from one another’s different perspectives, rather than just a yea-or-boo shouting up and down a thread and everybody going off to their own corners. So, I think, in that sense, equality is absolutely crucial. But alone, equality and liberty, free speech and equality, is not enough, because the two of them together just lets everybody shout whatever they want to shout.

AMY GOODMAN: You quote George Orwell from Animal Farm, the preface: “If Liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” You go on, to quote from more of the essay, saying, “If the intellectual liberty which without a doubt has been one of the distinguishing marks of … civilisation [means anything] at all, it means that everyone shall have the right to say and to print what he believes to be the truth, provided only that it does not harm the rest of the community in some quite remarkable way.”

BILLY BRAGG: That “provided” does a lot of work. And it’s absolutely crucial that we don’t forget that “provided,” because if you go back to the earlier part of the quote, “If Liberty means anything, it’s the right to tell people what they don’t want to hear,” I think that might be license he’s describing there, because people don’t want to hear the Holocaust didn’t happen. You know, people don’t want to — I mean, let’s — Orwell: People don’t want to hear two plus two equals five. And if you only have liberty and equality, you can have everybody shouting, “Two plus two equals five.”

What you need is some teeth in your freedom. And that’s where accountability comes in, that those who say that two plus two equals five are shown to be wrong, are shown to be outside of what’s acceptable facts, and, as such, are treated as people who are working in bad faith. So, although, you know, they’ve kind of — there’s a statue of Orwell at the BBC, and they’ve got that quote on the wall behind him. I think that I’m more in favor of accountability than license. I think license can lead us down the wrong wormhole.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, here you are in the United States at the time of the U.N. Climate Action Summit, and you have a girl, a young woman, who is holding the world accountable, named Greta Thunberg, 16-year-old Swedish climate activist with Asperger’s, who came in a zero-emissions sailboat. Two weeks, her journey took, from Europe. And it said on the sails, “Unite behind the science.” Your second song that you’re going to perform here today, “King Tide and the Sunny Day Flood,” talk about it. And also talk about the green tour that you’re taking around the world.

BILLY BRAGG: Yeah. Well, I’ll talk a little bit about my new touring model. It’s really just a way of touring a big country like America without having a massive carbon footprint. The last time I did a traditional American tour, which would have been 2017, I was kind of flying and playing every day. Now, that has a heavy weight on the environment, but also on the poor old artist. You know, it’s sort of — if I spend most of my time in transit, you know, I’m sort of — I’ll lose my voice, ultimately. So I’m looking for a way to slow that process down and have less of an impact on the environment and lessen the impact on me.

So what I’ve been doing is, I’ve been coming to a city like New York for a week and doing three shows, spending the rest of the time talking to people like you, promoting the book, wandering around, having a look at the place. It’s a much more copacetic way to tour. And it allows me to drive between cities. So, ultimately, the only flight that will be involved in this three-week tour is the one across the Atlantic.

And I’ve not yet found a way to cross the Atlantic that is — you know, doesn’t create a carbon footprint. Cruising across on a cruise boat is a bigger carbon footprint. And whilst I have great respect for Greta coming across on a catamaran, I’m not quite sure that there’s enough catamarans to get us all across the Atlantic so far.

So, I think that, it seems to me, dealing with young climate activists in the U.K. — there’s a group called climate — Extinction Rebellion. I don’t know if you’re familiar with them here in America.

AMY GOODMAN: Extremely.

BILLY BRAGG: Yeah. You know, their attitude seems to be “do what you can.” It’s not about, you know, “That’s it. Stop everything.” It’s “do what you can.” So I’m trying to adapt, slowly, to have a, you know, lower impact on the environment in everything I do. I’ve stopped using plastic water bottles backstage at my gigs now. We bring — we carry a big water filter urn with us that we use the water from. I’m using a reusable bottle on stage. I’m encouraging my audience to do the same.

So, you know, I think it behooves each of us to try and do what we can to respond to this incredible initiative from the young people. And it is young people driving the Extinction Rebellion campaign, you know, in tune with Greta’s message. So, you know, for those of us who work on the road, there are things that we can do to reduce our footprint, and I’m trying to do what I can.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the Green New Deal and labor?

BILLY BRAGG: Labour just voted in favor of that at their conference yesterday.

AMY GOODMAN: You’re talking about the Labour Party.

BILLY BRAGG: The Labour Party in the U.K., yes, have just voted in favor of adapting the New Green Deal in the U.K.

AMY GOODMAN: And what does it mean?

BILLY BRAGG: Well, it basically means — in no uncertain terms, it means changing the economy to make it carbon-free in the next decade.

AMY GOODMAN: Set a fixed date —


AMY GOODMAN: — to achieve net zero —


AMY GOODMAN: — as well as nationalizing the big six energy firms and guaranteeing green jobs.

BILLY BRAGG: Yeah. I mean, you know, wind comes and goes. The tide comes in and goes out every day. And we live on a great big island. Don’t tell me it’s not possible to be able to find green ways to generate regular power. You know, I live by the sea. I can see the power of the tide. And it’s something that we are in a privileged position to be able to galvanize. And I don’t see why we’re not having a new industrial revolution that picks up on that.

AMY GOODMAN: So, “King Tide and the Sunny Day Flood.”

BILLY BRAGG: Sunny Day Flood, yeah. A few years ago, I read an article about a phenomena in Florida where the water in the Gulf of Mexico, as it’s not returned to its winter temperature for the last few seasons, when there’s a king tide, a seasonal high tide, it forces the — it’s already expanded, so it forces the groundwater in low-lying areas of Florida up through the drains, up through the parks. And they have this phenomena that I call a sunny day flood, which is a flood when there isn’t a storm. And it’s a regular occurrence there. And it seemed to me that this is a precursor for all of us. It’s something that’s going to be occurring not just in low-lying areas in Florida, but all around the coasts of our continent.

So, I decided to write a song with that — I thought it was a great image: A king tide is a-comin’ — to try and reflect that, because in the U.K., the Extinction Rebellion is seen as a single-issue group, but I think if you take them along with #MeToo and with Black Lives Matter and with those who are working for transgender rights and for gun control, although these are single issues in themselves, they are actually part of an accountability movement that seeks to hold those in power to account in terms of misogyny, in terms of racism, in terms of discrimination against transgender people. Accountability, I think — in a post-ideological world, accountability has real power. And to try and focus on that in the book, I’m trying to offer people a framework with which to draw these things together, to not only understand what these movements are about, but also to find out if the people that you’re dealing with online or face to face is working in good faith or in bad faith.

AMY GOODMAN: And before we end with your song, if you could talk about the role of art, of music and resistance?

BILLY BRAGG: Music has an important role to play in resistance. It doesn’t have agency. Music cannot change the world, but it can bring together the people who do change the world. When I’m doing a gig, by the end of the evening, I’ve sung my songs — “Power in a Union” and all that stuff, you know. Audience respond powerfully, I go off with my activism recharged. You know, anything I was feeling cynical about before I come on stage, out here in the dark of everybody, I get that energy from them.

And my job is to make the audience go away with that same feeling, not necessarily only from what I’ve said and what I’ve sung, but also from the feeling in the room, because when I sing those songs and everybody sings together, there’s a solidarity there in the idea, you know. And the people that are coming to my gigs, you know, they may live and work in an environment which is — you know, where there is casual sexism, casual racism, you know, casual homophobia. I am trying to make them feel they’re not alone. I’m trying to make them feel they’re not the only people who care about this stuff. So, that sort of vibe that I get, I’m trying to make sure that my audience go away with that, as well.

And I think that’s the power that music has, the power to charge people up, to focus their solidarity and send them away themselves to change the world, because singer-songwriters — trust me, I’ve tried — can’t change the world, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: “King Tide and the Sunny Day Flood,” Billy Bragg.

BILLY BRAGG: [performing “King Tide and the Sunny Day Flood”]

Wouldn’t it be wonderful
If we could save the world and all
Simply by collecting up
Tin cans and empty bottles
We all want to believe it’s true
But it don’t matter what you do
So long as we continue to
Burn our way through fossils

Now it should come as no surprise
To hear about the ocean’s rise
The polar caps are melting
With every year that the planet warms
Now people have to understand
We’re going to feel it far inland
It’s going to shift the seasons
And super-charge the storms

The King Tide is a-comin’
The King Tide is a-comin’
The King Tide is a-comin’
Bringing floodin’ on a sunny day
The King Tide is a-comin’
Can’t you hear the melt waters runnin’?
The King Tide is a-comin’
Gonna wash everything away

And you know
The oceans they connect us all
No one can just build a wall
We have to work together
We can’t do this on our own
To think that you can stand aside
Is nothing more than foolish pride
'Cause everyone's a libertarian
’Til the brown water floods their home

Now you may live on higher ground
Feeling like you’re safe and sound
Thinking as you look around
This is your lucky day
But everyone beneath the sky
Soon be looking to somewhere high and dry
Nothing you can ever do
Will keep them all at bay, because

The King Tide is a-comin’
The King Tide is a-comin’
The King Tide is a-comin’
Bringing floodin’ on a sunny day
The King Tide is a-comin’
Can’t you hear the melt waters runnin’?
The King Tide is a-comin’
Gonna wash everything away
The King Tide is a-comin’
And we have to act today.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Billy Bragg singing “King Tide and the Sunny Day Flood.” Billy Bragg, talk about “Waiting for the Great Leap Forward.”

BILLY BRAGG: Oh, it’s a song I wrote a long time ago, in the 1980s. It was after I’d gone through a period of heavy involvement in the British miners’ strike, in supporting the Labour Party, in trying to defeat Margaret Thatcher. It didn’t come to what we had hoped it would come to. So, I felt that I needed to write a song that reflected I understood that. And I understood that music can’t change the world, but even though that, I was still committed to the struggle and still committed to trying my best to try and get music to make some difference. So, it’s kind of — it’s a wry look at the idea of protest music.

AMY GOODMAN: Billy Bragg, “Waiting for the Great Leap Forward.”

BILLY BRAGG: [performing “Waiting for the Great Leap Forwards”]

It may have been Camelot for Jack and Jacqueline
But on the Hugo Chávez highway filling up with gasoline
Fidel Castro’s brother spies a rich lady who’s crying
Over luxury’s disappointment
So he goes over and he’s trying
To sympathize with her but he thinks that he should warn her
That the climate emergency is just around the corner, yeah
In the former 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
In the Cheese Pavilion and the only noise I hear
Is the sound of someone stacking chairs
And mopping up spilled beer
And someone asking questions and basking in the light
Of the 15 fame-filled seconds of the fanzine writer
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
Jumble sales are organized
And pamphlets have been posted
Even after all this time there’s still parties to be hosted
You can be active with the activists
Or sleep in with the [inaudible]
While you’re waiting for the great leap forwards
One leap forwards, two leaps back
Will Brexit get us all the sack?
Waiting for the great leap forwards
In a perfect world we’d all sing in tune
But there ain’t nobody who can sing like me
Way over yonder in a minor key, yeah
Well, if no one out there understands
Start your own bloody podcast and cut out the middleman
Waiting for the great leap forwards
Well, here comes the future and you can’t run from it
If you’ve got a tattoo, I want to be on it
Waiting for the great leap forwards
So join the struggle while you may
The revolution is just a T-shirt away
Available for a reasonable price in the foyer, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! Billy Bragg, the legendary British singer-songwriter. His new book is called The Three Dimensions of Freedom. It’s just been published.

To see Part 1 of our discussion, go to I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks so much for joining us.

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