I know that you are reluctant to try and define Englishness. Why is this?
My reluctance to list the things that I believe define Englishness is based on my belief that it just confuses the debate. Top of my list would be Marmite, so that's half the population of England excluded already. When it gets down to the individual level, identity is personal and it manifests diversity rather than a Daily Mail-type uniformity. What I'm interested in exploring is any sense of belonging that links this diverse society.
The ImaginedVillage was a fascinating project. What particular relevance did it have for you as a Londoner?
Funny you should mention being a Londoner, because that became a key part of the Imagined Village concerts for me. When we got together in rehearsal and I saw that other members of the band were wearing what you might call their vernacular garb --Johnny Kalsi in his Sikh outfit, Sheema Mukherji in a sari, Eliza Carthy in an outfit that reflected her gypsy heritage--I thought to myself, 'Where's my vernacular garb then? What costume do I have in my heritage that says something about who I am?' My great-grandfather was a costermonger --a fruit and veg seller-- in late nineteenth century London and the fashion among young costermonger lads at that time was to wear a black moleskin suit with pearl buttons along all the seams, so I got myself made one of those. It wasn't as flamboyant as a pearly king suit, which was something that came later in the costermonger tradition. This was a bit more subtle, but it helped me to make the point that all of us have our traditional costume, if only we can be bothered to do our homework.
You've argued that England ought to have its own national anthem. Could you sum up why, and why should it be Jerusalem rather than any of the other candidates?
I believe that, as a minimum requirement, a national anthem should mention the name of your country. Neither Land of Hope and Glory, Rule Britannia nor I Vow To Thee My Country mentions England. Nor, for that matter, does God Save the Queen. Blake's Jerusalem does. For that reason alone it should be the prime candidate.
While you are keen to promote a healthy pride in Englishness, as a socialist you also have an internationalist outlook. How do these two elements fit together?
Anyone who knows anything about the subject will be aware that there are many different types of socialism, some in constant conflict with others. Our opponents seek to marginalise us by insisting that the worst excesses of socialism are the definitive example. It's the same with patriotism. It is because I love my country that I want it to be a place of compassion and equality. I am a patriot because I'm a socialist and vice versa.
Can a balance be struck between individualism and collectivism? If so, how?
As I have said, there are many types of socialism. The one that I adhere to believes that the individual is the most important facet of society. However, it also holds that an individual will never reach their full potential unless they are the recipient of collective provision funded by progressive taxation. Without free health care, free education, decent affordable housing and a proper pension, only the rich and powerful will be able to express their individuality and the rest will be exploited by them.
What did you get from punk, in terms of your political outlook and musical influences?
I was politicised by punk rock. Rock Against Racism was the first political act I ever undertook. Musically, it made it OK for kids from suburban Essex who weren't pretty and couldn't sing to make music on their own terms.
What point were you trying to make with the album England, Half-English?
I was trying to kick-start a debate among progressives about what it means to be English in a post-ideological, post-devolution British state.
I found that The Progressive Patriot seemed to mix up the Britishness and Englishness discussions a bit. Was that intentional?
Where does England end and Britain begin? A Scotsman knows where Scotland begins and a Welshman, Wales. We English have no border between our country and Westminster. Is it any surprise we sometimes have trouble differentiating?
What was the significance of England Made Me Too, the original title of The Progressive Patriot?
The original title for the book was inspired by the Graham Greene novel England Made Me about a young upper class Englishman drifting through the decadence of Weimar Germany, a kind of cross between Cabaret and Brideshead Revisited. The hero was a toffee-nosed, teddy-bear trailing twit, the English archetype if you like. I wanted to point out that England also made people like me.
The English radical tradition seems to have had a major influence on your thought. When did you first become aware of it?
During the 1984 Miners' Strike. I was a radical punk rocker from London who went up to the coalfields thinking I would be giving them some politics. Imagine my surprise when I found that the folk singers were there before me, and they were even more radical. It was there that I got my real education. It began when a singer stood up and sang the first lines to Leon Rossellson's great song The World Turned Upside Down.
When I reviewed The Progressive Patriot, I was a little disturbed by the historical dichotomy that you seem to set up between Labour and Conservatives. For example, when you talk about the welfare state, you don't mention the post-war Labour/Tory consensus over the importance of the NHS, etc.
I was trying to make the case that the defining English trait is a commitment to fairness, something that can be traced back in our history to Magna Carta and which saw its ultimate expression in the founding of the Welfare State in 1948. In my lifetime, the greatest opponent of that tradition has been Margaret Thatcher, a Conservative politician who sought to replace the collectivist consensus with an individualism that was belligerent and self-serving. It was she who forced me to see politics in terms of class.
In other interviews you've mentioned how becoming a father changed your political outlook to a 'socialism of the heart.' What does this mean, and how is it different to your previous beliefs?
I feel parenthood has allowed me to step away from the ideological politics forced upon me by Thatcher in the 1980s, which is probably just as well as we now live in a post-ideological period of history. I find myself talking less about dogma, socialism of the head, and more about compassion, socialism of the heart.
A lot of fuss is being made about the fact that you have just put out an album of love songs, but looking back over your discography it seems that there have always been plenty of love songs. Why do you think you are consistently described as a 'political songwriter'?
Probably because so few other songwriters choose to write about issues. I've never objected to being labelled a political songwriter. What upsets me is when I am dismissed as being just a political songwriter. People who say that have never listened to my albums, nor come to my gigs, otherwise they'd know that politics forms only part of my work.
From reading The Progressive Patriot, it seems that music at one time inspired far fiercer loyalties in young people than it does now (for example, you were pro-Clash but anti-Pistols). What do you suppose has changed?
I think that back in the seventies, there was only one major outlet for pop music, BBC's Radio One, so we were all constantly struggling to get 'our' music on the airwaves and into the charts. Now, with the internet, there are so many ways of hearing new music, it doesn't seem to be such an important thing anymore.
You suggest in The Progressive Patriot that class does not matter the way it used to, but I wonder how you would justify this given the economic depression in many of England's former industrial areas, as well as the rise of socially-acceptable snobbery that you deplore in the book.
Sixty years ago it would be difficult for someone from my background to go to university. Now, state educated kids at uni are nothing special. So class doesn't matter in that sense. That doesn't mean it has disappeared. Some still keenly feel it and most of us can discern it, yet the whole idea of class sits uncomfortably with our sense of who we are. No-one wants to be labelled 'upper-class'; it's seen as a slur. 'Middle-class' is a label widely shunned by the middle classes, although we all know exactly what 'Middle England' means, and 'working-class' has become a synonym for 'feckless and intolerant.' In that sense, class has become a stereotype rather than an actual social barrier to individual progress as it was for my grandfather.
The argument about class aside, in what practical ways can we create a society "in which ethnicity....no longer matters"?
Elect a black Prime Minister.
You have some concrete proposals in The Progressive Patriot for negotiating a better and fairer society in Britain as a whole. What about the similar battle to save Englishness from the far right?
When St George gets down off his horse after slaying the dragon and takes off his suit of armour, people see him as he really is, someone from the Middle East come here to do the job of patron saint for a country whose traditions are evolving to match the demographic make-up of its citizens. The far right are only able to lay claim to our national symbols when we discard them. The left have to reconnect with that golden thread of fairness that runs through our common heritage and weave it into a new, inclusive narrative about what it means to be English in the twenty-first century.
Many thanks to Billy Bragg for his time. The interview was conductedby Isabel Taylor.