Billy Bragg grew up in Barking, a white working class neighborhood in the East End of London at a time when anti-immigrant feeling was high.
Back in the late 70s, I was working in an office, a place of casual racism and homophobia. I never spoke out against it because I felt I was in a minority and didn’t want the grief. On the streets, the National Front were marching through immigrant neighborhoods, stirring up trouble and trying to divide communities.
I may well have carried on turning a blind eye were it not for the Clash. When their name was added to the bill of the first Rock Against Racism carnival in April 1978, I knew I had to be there. When I arrived at the rally, in east London, I was amazed to see 100,000 young people just like me—one for every vote the National Front had won in the council elections the year before.
I came away with a strong sense that this was where my generation was going to make its stand. Just as youth in the 50s had marched against the bomb, and the long-hairs of the 60s had opposed the Vietnam War, we were going to define ourselves in opposition to discrimination in all its forms.
Rock Against Racism was a watershed in the development of multiculturalism in this country…. We fought the narrow-mindedness of the National Front by widening our cultural horizons….
Well, it was the music of the Clash that got me to the Rock Against Racism carnival. However, it wasn’t the songs they played that day, or the speeches that were made from the stage that changed my world. It was being in that audience. I went to work the next day determined to speak up against the racists, confident in the knowledge that I was not alone.1
Bragg took the festival’s message of tolerance to the stage with him as he became a successful musician. In recent years, Bragg has found a new outlet for his ideas. He has published a book, and now writes a weekly newspaper column. With words and music, Bragg promotes his vision of ‘progressive patriotism’—a vision of an inclusive English identity that is not threatened by diversity.
In one of his columns he explained:
Over the past few years there has been a growing sense of victimhood among sections of the Indigenous population, a feeling that, although in the majority, white Britons are somehow being oppressed. This… idea is often expressed in radio phone-ins where disgruntled callers claim they ‘are no longer allowed to be British.’ I listen intently as the host asks them to identify who, exactly, is denying them their right to be British, and in what way.2
Bragg suggests that the solution is to take pride in English history and identity, and to share it in a way that helps build connections to newcomers:
But does our history—that of a white, Christian, democratic society—have anything to say to those who have recently arrived from countries that share none of these characteristics? Can heritage accommodate those who feel excluded? I believe it can.
Less than a century ago, most British citizens were excluded from fully realising their individual potential by class barriers; excluded from expressing their democratic will by gender; excluded from good health by poverty. All the way back to the Magna Carta, our history has examples of people standing up for their right to be treated fairly. It is this struggle for belonging that connects the majority of English people with the minority of recently arrived immigrants—a struggle to be accepted as part of society, as respected, responsible citizens.
Our history, far from being a stuffy subject that concerns itself merely with kings, queens, and generals, has the potential to make an important contribution to the increasingly fractious debate about who does and does not belong. To counter those who exploit fear in order to divide communities, we urgently need to highlight the common threads that bind us as a society. First and foremost will be the country that we share: the ‘English’ in English heritage is surely a matter of place, not race.3
- 1 : Billy Bragg, ‘The Day I realised music could change the world’, The Guardian, 8 October, 2007, (accessed 14 April 2009).
- multiculturalism : An ideology and social policy that assumes that a society can have multiple cultural identities. In such a society, citizens maintain their group identity alongside their national identity. As an integration policy, multiculturalism attempts to create a two-way dialogue between the communities of newcomers (or minorities) and the rest of the population. In contrast, assimilation means that newcomers give up their minority’s identity and are expected to blend in.
- 2 : Billy Bragg, ‘They’re not just British values but we need them anyway’, The Guardian, 10 April, 2007, (accessed 14 April 2009).
- 3 : Billy Bragg, ‘The struggle for belonging’ The Guardian, 7 November, 2006, (accessed 14 April 2009).