Friday 10 December 2010

"I don't want to change the world..."

In the United States, opinion on climate change seems to be split along party lines; in general terms, Democrats follow the science, Republicans, well, don't. In the UK we haven't yet followed that pattern. It could just be a matter of time though; British politics is a strange beast at the moment.

At the UEA on Wednesday night, my great hero, Billy Bragg, played to a packed house - one man, three guitars and a bellyful of anger. Alone on the stage, stark in the spotlights, he was a titan, a musical demigod. I first went to see Bragg 21 years ago, also at the UEA, and I've seen him six or seven times since then up and down the country, his songs the backdrop to much of my adult life.

His politics have evolved over the years as Britian has changed. I saw him play during Thatcher's premiership, then during the Major years; at the Hackney Free Festival the weekend after Labour's landslide victory in '97, then again during the invasion of Iraq. And now, in coalition Britain, the day before the university fees vote, when the streets of London became a battleground.

Bragg's often dismissed as a lefty singer, a remnant of 80's Red Wedge idealism. But his passion for justice defies easy labelling. In between classic songs about personal and political struggle - A New England, Levi Stubb's Tears, The World Turned Upside Down - he talked about fighting racism, fighting cynicism, the need for strong public services and social justice for all, for community action and for looking after each other.  As if people really mattered.

And the point is, that unlike the American polarisation around climate change I mentioned at the beginning, these things shouldn't divide on party lines, left and right, liberal and conservative, but should be based on a common and universal respect for each. Bragg is unashamedly socialist, but he talks of socialism, not as something dreamed up by Marx or Trotsky, but in terms of the language of "institutionalised compassion", a community based on respect.  Something beyond Labour, Tory and Lib Dem.  I really like that idea.  That's something I can sign up to.

Bragg told us that singer-songwriters can't change the world.

Each time I see him on stage, I'm not so sure.

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