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  • Writer's pictureMark Howitt

Take Down the Union Jack

After Rishi Sunak brought the Conservative Party Conference to a close on Wednesday in Manchester with his less than inspirational speech, it really does feel that we are living through the end times. For certain, the end of HS2 (now ending in Birmingham) and, apparently, the end of smoking tobacco (now ending for everyone under the age of 14). But very likely also, the end of the current government (since 2010), the end of the Conservative Party (founded 1834), and, at this rate, the end of the United Kingdom (1707).

Later in the day, mulling over Sunak’s statement that “the UK is the most successful multi-ethnic democracy on earth” and wondering how he could be so wide of the mark in only ten words, I stuck on the first CD which came to hand and found myself listening to Billy Bragg’s 2001 album England, Half English. In any list of the Bard of Barking’s long players, this one rarely gets a mention. It’s usually early stuff like Talking with the Taxman About Poetry (1986) and Workers Playtime (1988) or his later Woody Guthrie collaborations with Wilco.

England, Half English is musically patchy, odd given that it was Bragg’s first album of self-penned new material for six years. But for a rainy afternoon in October, taking a breather before more of the same from Sir Keir next week in Liverpool, it was just what the doctor ordered, Bragg’s intelligence and compassion showing through his lyrics.

I had forgotten the kitchen sink drama of Another Kind of Judy, laugh out loud funny and in She filled my head with the awful noise / Of her disappointment and the Pet Shop Boys contains one of the best couplets ever.

But the highlight is Take Down the Union Jack. Unlike the rest of the album, it’s Bragg and acoustic guitar, no band, rendering it all the more poignant.

Take down the Union Jack, it clashes with the sunset

And put it in the attic with the emperor’s old clothes

When did it fall apart? Sometime in the 80s

When the great and the good gave way to the greedy and the mean

Britain isn't cool, you know, it's really not that great

It's not a proper country, it doesn't even have a patron saint

It's just an economic union that's past its sell-by date

Bragg doesn’t play the song often at his shows, in England very rarely. I do hope he dusts it down when he comes to Edinburgh’s Usher Hall at the end of November. I reckon that would go down a storm.

Image: Ottr Dan

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