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A good album marred by misplaced nostalgia
Billy Bragg should know better

Review by Donny Schraffenberger | June 7, 2002 | Page 9

MUSIC: Billy Bragg and The Blokes, England, Half English, Elektra/Asylum, 2002.

BRITISH MUSICIAN Billy Bragg's new album, England, Half English is what I've come to expect from him--an interesting but inconsistent mix of relationship songs and politics.

"NPWA," which stands for "No Power Without Accountability," is a song for global justice. It criticizes the unelected representatives of international financial institutions like the World Bank that scour the earth with an insatiable thirst for profit. Bragg sang it at antiglobalization protests in February in New York.

Because of his reputation as a left-wing, pro-union musician, Bragg is seen as a voice for our side. Bragg says that, growing up working class in 1970s England, he was inspired by political punk band the Clash.

He was an anarchist, but the 1983 Falklands' war and the 1984-85 British national miners' strike made him reassess his politics. He became a Labour Party supporter, and considers himself a socialist.

Bragg is a breath of fresh air from the apolitical stuff that's out there, but people should listen with a critical ear. For example, in a song from his new CD, Bragg says:

Take down the Union Jack, it clashes with the sunset
And put it in the attic with the emperors old clothes
When did it fall apart? Sometimes in the '80s
When the Great and the Good gave way to the greedy and the mean.

At first, I thought he meant the 1680s, but he's talking about the 1980s.

True, the 1980s were a time of vicious attacks on the welfare state by Tory Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher--similar to Ronald Reagan's attacks here. But this was hardly the start of when the ruling class went bad.

How about British rulers' subjugation of Ireland, destruction of India and the numerous bloody fights its workers had to wage to win their welfare state?

In England, Half English, Bragg has the idea of building up English nationalism from the left, to be a multiracial country, as a counter to the right wing's xenophobia. He should be commended for standing up against racism, but doing it by culturing a left-wing English patriotism plays into the right's hands.

Bragg should know better. As he has sung before, internationalism is the world's hope.

About 10 years ago, I met Bragg after a concert. He told me that he would come to my protest, but I had to vote, too. The only choice in the U.S. presidential election was between a Republican and a Democrat. I didn't take Bragg's advice. Instead, I helped build the fight against the Gulf War and the Republican attack on the social safety net.

Later, as president, the Democrat who Bragg would have had me vote for--Bill Clinton--cut welfare and enforced sanctions against Iraq.

With all his political contradictions and faults, Bragg still stands for fighting against injustice. Just don't expect to learn your politics through him.

With all that said, check out Bragg's early music. His 1986 Talking with the Taxman about Poetry is a classic.

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