I don’t want to change the world
I’m not looking for a new England
Are you looking for another girl ?
It might seem a stretch to link political activist and singer Billy Bragg with the new leader of the Conservative Party, but both featured in the news this week.
Billy received a write-up in The Observer for his new book on English patriotism – a decidedly risky concept within the social landscape of modern Britain, fitting entirely comfortably neither on the terraces of Upton Park nor on the East London streets of Bragg’s childhood home in nearby Barking.
And David Cameron was everywhere it seemed, following his début at the Tory Party Conference, where he made that speech – a decidedly risky exercise within the political landscape of the right, fitting entirely convincingly neither in the Conservative Party conference hall nor in the white middle-class streets of Bournemouth which surrounded it.
Let’s get this clear, up front. I’m not going to be voting for David Cameron any time soon.
And yet, at the same time as I was scrolling through my iPod, looking for my copy of A New England (it’s the cover by the late lamented Kirsty MacColl which features on my playlist) the irony of that song title wasn’t exactly lost on me, either.
Risky it may have been for David Cameron to place himself and his party firmly (or is it just cosmetically ?) within the centre ground of British politics, backing civil partnerships for gay couples, promoting the National Health Service, the environment and education, and not mentioning immigration even once, but at the same time I can see just what a political masterstroke it might prove to be.
DC had no policies to expound. But for all of his omissions and my suspicions, he still sounded young, fresh, dynamic. And at times even sincere.
A friend lent me Billy Bragg’s début album Life’s a Riot with Spy vs Spy in 1984 during the Miner’s Strike, and I taped the early compilation Back to Basics when it appeared a couple of years later.
It was a different world then, living in Maggie Thatcher’s Britain, but even from the shelter of our student house in Cowley I could recognise just what an important struggle was going on for the future of the country.
Maggie won that battle, of course, belatedly bestowing a kind of heroic Tolpuddle Martyrism to the defeated miners. A specially revered form of stoical Northern misery – one which we’ve almost affectionately relived more recently through the nostalgia reels of Brassed Off and Billy Elliot.
But it was a raw and gritty kind of history then, living through it. The cruelty of the subsequent Major recession found its own screenplay in The Full Monty, firmly completing the myth (no doubt still widely held abroad) that modern Britain is nothing more than a vast post-industrial wasteland characterised by chirpy humour and massive urban deprivation.
Looking back, of course, it was exactly that torture of widespread unemployment, economic collapse and political corruption which sowed the seeds of salvation, giving us the new broom which was New Labour to sweep the streets emphatically and energetically clean.
Only now is it more haunting to look back at the fresh, dynamic vision of a young and scarily wide-eyed Tony Blair leading us into a new and more stylish country which was (quite unbelievably, it seems now) to be called Cool Britannia.
Haunting because it’s nine years on now, and Britain has come full circle. Those dirty words ‘New Labour’ now carry a different meaning, speaking of failed and cynical spin, a tired, back-stabbing government, and a Prime Minister enjoying his summer holiday whilst Lebanon burned and colleagues plotted his demise.
Where that circle leaves Britain’s future, only time will tell.
But if Thatcher’s greatest achievement really was the establishment of effective industrial relations in this country (at such terrible cost), then it was also exactly the destruction of old socialism which finally paved the way for the re-emergence of an electorally acceptable Labour party.
So if we look back at the present from a different future, I wonder, will we see today’s reflection in the same strangely refracted light ?
Because surely it is exactly Tony Blair’s success in fostering a prosperous, socially inclusive and multicultural Britain which has forced the Conservative Party to abandon its most outdatedly divisive and discriminatory tendencies.
History may yet perceive the greatest gift of this Labour Prime Minister to be the enforced re-birth of a different kind of Conservative Party – one which if not yet reconstructed, does at least appear more distinctly electable.
There’s a Tory down in Brick Lane swears he’s ethnic. Now that would have been an unexpectedly new England to sing about, Kirsty.