Published: 08/08/2014 10:12 - Updated: 08/08/2014 10:30

BELLA INTERVIEW 9: Bragg out to end the power of the union

Billy Bragg: 'I'm not really a musician. I'm a communicator.'
Billy Bragg: 'I'm not really a musician. I'm a communicator.'

THERE is one song from Billy Bragg’s back catalogue that will probably not get an airing at Belladrum this weekend — There Is Power In A Union.

Not that the singer, songwriter and socialist has lost any of his commitment to trade unionism — he mentions that one of his favourite festivals is at Tolpuddle, the spiritual home of the trade union movement.

However, having given his backing to the Yes campaign in Scotland’s independence referendum, it seems there is one Union he is less supportive of, and his Belladrum set tomorrow might reflect that.

"There’s no point in me playing Take Down The Union Jack at the Latitude Festival. It’s not going to be high on their agenda," he said.

"But it will be at a festival like Belladrum."

As an Englishman, Bragg sees Scotland’s independence as offering potential benefits for those south of the border, a chance to create a more accountable political system and at the same time reclaim English patriotism from the far right who have "hi-jacked" their national identity.

"In terms of the Scottish referendum, the implications for all of us in the UK are massive," he said.

"Some of the comments you see online — ‘why do you hate us?’ — people just don’t get it. It’s about self-determination. Very often those people are the same people who don’t want to be part of Europe. They can understand self-determination in terms of Great Britain, but they can’t understand it in terms of Scotland."

For Bragg, self determination is not something that should stop at Scotland or national level.

It is something that should apply to cities and regions too.

"I hope a Yes vote would act as a catalyst for the constitutional shake up we have needed for a long time in the UK," he stated.

"The Scottish referendum is a manifestation of the failure of the Westminster parliament to reflect the broader views of the British people. I live in the south west of England. There’s only one election I get to vote in which is proportional, and that’s the European election. The rest of the time I’m wasting my time because it’s always Tory.

"Our belief in the system’s ability to act on our views is seriously damaged. That’s why people are switching off from politics, whereas in Scotland, because you have proportional representation, it has allowed parties outside the two viable options for government that the rest of us have. The possibility of a break up in the Union gives us the chance to re-arrange things in the rest of the UK and I can’t imagine that whatever replaces Westminster would be anything other than proportional."

Scottish referendum or not, politics is always likely to feature in any interview with Bragg, but he has not problem with talking about big issues rather than the intricacies of making music.

"I’m not really a musician," he stated.

"I’m a communicator. I’m just interested in engaging with people."

Which is why he will not only be found on stage performing his set, but at Bella’s spoken word space, the Verb Garden, for a debate with the Bella audience.

It is another reason for Bragg to look forward to this weekend’s festival, which brings him back to the Highlands after what he admits is a long absence.

"If you get an offer from somewhere like that, you tend to think: ‘I might have a little bit of that’," he said.

Playing a festival brings its own challenges, which are not too dissimilar from Bragg’s early days as a busker.

"If you are not top of the bill, the chances are the audience have come to see someone else, so you’ve got to get out there and play your set and make a connection," he said.

"For instance, I was at Latitude a couple of weeks ago and it was really sunny, so I just chucked in all the summery songs and we did a lovely summery set.

"I like to wander about and get a vibe of a festival. It’s always good to have a little bit of a grasp of what’s happening rather than just walk out and expect everything to work to your advantage. You have to do what you came to do, but do in it a way that at least works with the grain of what’s happening at the festival."

The same impulse applies when Bragg ventures future afield. He is not one of those musicians who goes on tour and only sees the inside of venues and hotel rooms while eating British food and drinking British beer.

"It’s not hard to get out of the bubble of rock and roll," he said.

"The first time we ever played Inverness, I was reading John Prebble’s book on Culloden and after the gig this bloke asked if we wanted to go there. I found it very powerful up on the moor at night. Most people in my of business, after a show, they go to a club and take drugs. I find that a bit mundane. I prefer to go out and see what’s what."

• Billy Bragg appears on the Belladrum Tartan Heart Festival Garden Stage on Saturday.


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