Friday, 9 March 2012

Billy Bragg: Which Side Are You On?

This government had an idea and parliament made it law
It seems like it's illegal To fight for the union any more.
Which side are you on, boys? Which side are you on?
Which side are you on, boys? Which side are you on?
Billy Bragg: Back to Basics, 1987

Back in 'Thatcher's 80s', Billy bragg was the (singing) voice of working class dissent. Armed only with a guitar, a radical left-wing attitude and Woody Guthrie's politcal lyricism wrapped in an estuarine Essex drawl, he was the music business' social conscience - a true people's poet.

Back then I was educated, agitated and organised, against everything, everywhere all the time  - and Bragg provided the soundtrack as a beaten generation buckled under the repeated blows of a brutal Conservative government.

Billy Bragg's albums formed the backbone of my early record collection - and seeing him spit passionate vitriol as a staple of the never-ending strike-benefit gig circuit was inspiring. If you had a guitar and something to say, you could get up and say it. 'Sticking it to the man' was now a form of expressive art. It was uplifting; liberating.

But Bragg wasn't just a left wing propagandist. Beneath the politics and the polemic beat a sensitive heart. And 'New England' was his anthem describing the crooked arc of real-life heartbreak in a society where everyone loses.

It was a clenched fist in a woolly glove. A sweet punch that hit you where it really hurt.

Fast forward 25 years and what's really changed? As an essentially Conservative Government crafts policies designed to make the poorest, most vulnerable in society pay for the excesses of the greedy, the stupid, the corporate and the criminal, you'd imagine that the stage was set for Bragg to pick up his guitar and play.

Well he has, but this time he's changed sides - soundtracking the new Lucozade Sport advertising campaign which features one of England's most discriminatory establishment bodies of the last century - the English Rugby Football Union.

Let's not forget that the 1895 split in the Rugby Codes was essentially an industrial dispute. The payment by clubs for 'broken time' compensating working-class players for missing work to play on a Saturday was seen as a crime of professionalism by the RFU. And they issued discriminatory sanctions against clubs, players and officials involved in Rugby League - until Union itself took the professional shilling in 1995 -  a full century after the formation of the Northern Union.

But the discrimination against League continued: as recently as 2005, a memorandum of the all party Parliamentary Rugby league Group to the Select Committee on Public Administration stated:

"Rugby League continues to be held back by what can only be described as a continuing inbuilt "establishment" bias against the sport. We see this in particular in the way it is treated by the London based national media and in other areas such as the honours system"

"Our members have a wide range of opinions on these matters but we are united in our view that rugby league as a sport is being quite blatantly discriminated against within the current arrangements."

"In light of the historical evidence that the game has throughout most of its existence had to battle against quite open hostility from what might be described as the British establishment, we believe that the treatment of rugby league within the honours system is an excellent example of the way such a system can be argued to exacerbate social divisions."

And if that's not enough, let's not forget that the Union code in France sided with the Vichy Government to criminalise League and strip it of its assets in an attempt to wipe it from the sporting map. W. Mann's review of Mike Rylance's book "The Forbidden Game: The Untold Story of French Rugby League" summarises:

"The French Rugby Union's collusion with the Nazi-backed Vichy Government to ban Rugby League is one of the most shameful episodes in the history of sport."

"It all but destroyed a sport that was, at the time, threatening to overtake rugby union in popularity terms, even though league was only introduced to France six years earlier. Had league continued its meteoric rise, the map of world rugby - and I mean both codes - might today be very different."

"Yet there is still a sense of denial about what happened to Rugby League in France, and even today, the game is discriminated against - try asking the Catalans Dragons about their difficulties sharing a supposedly municipal stadium with union club Perpignan."

For Billy Bragg to align himself with the English RFU is to concede that he  - after hoodwinking us all - has chosen which side he's on. The 'Union' he fights for these days has carefully cultivated its place as the sport of the establishment; and has wielded its substantiual influence against a sport rooted in a working-class fight for fair-treatment, fair pay and a fair hearing.

Values that Billy Bragg once claimed. And which - fittingly, given his new allegiance - he seems to have kicked firmly into touch.