Three decades after penning hit single A New England, singer-songwriter and leftwing activist Billy Bragg has been invited by the Bank of England to lecture City financiers about how to build a better society.
The pro-Corbyn protester who formed a punk band in 1977 and gigged for striking miners in the 1980s will give a speech next week at Threadneedle Street. It will be followed by a networking reception with Britain’s biggest bankers, more used to discussing gilt-edged securities than listening to Bragg’s cover versions of the Red Flag.
“I’m not going to be calling for the overthrow of capitalism” said Bragg, who will instead focus on the “increasing alienation of ordinary citizens”, which he believes was partly behind Brexit and Trump’s victory.
He said politicians have been almost entirely captured by the ideology of the free market, which has then absolved them of responsibility. “Democracy is not enough. We need to hold corporations to account,” said Bragg, citing the political activism that helped halt the hugely controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) deal.
“Greater accountability is the antidote to authoritarianism. It was how the TTIP deal – the mad idea that corporations could sue governments if their policies harmed their profits – was stopped. I’ll be way out of my comfort chamber [at the Bank of England] but I’m not there to be polite.”
Bragg was invited by Andy Haldane, the Bank of England’s chief economist. “He has been trying to invite people who may shake up their thinking” said Bragg.
But focusing on economic growth and GDP figures alone is, argues Bragg, part of the problem rather than the solution. “Politicians have moved from changing the world to just trying to manage the economy. When politicians just go on about economic growth it alienates people, and in any case it’s just not sustainable. They have not been capable of dealing with change. Brexit, Trump, even Corbyn were about people wanting change. They are fed up with being told there is no alternative.”
Despite a media ruckus following a speech in Edinburgh in 2016 that was interpreted as an attack on Corbyn, Bragg says he remains loyal to the Labour leader.
“I’m a Corbynite. That doesn’t mean I agree with absolutely everything he says. But I think his election to party leader was about how normal people, the party members, should have a greater say in things. That fits in very much with what I’ll be saying about accountability.”