Billy Bragg on Margaret Thatcher’s Legacy


Friday, April 12, 2013

During her time as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Margaret Thatcher provoked diverse reactions: some thought she saved the country, others thought she ruined it. Many prominent British artists — from the filmmaker Mike Leigh to the musician Elvis Costello — railed against her conservative policies. The changing social and political conditions under Thatcher drove Billy Bragg to activist songwriting, including “Between the Wars.”

Call up the craftsmen
Bring me the draughtsmen
Build me a path from cradle to grave
And I'll give my consent
To any government
That does not deny a man a living wage

The song “was my attempt to evoke that kind of consensus around a caring society that I’d benefited from and grown up in,” Bragg explains.

Kurt Andersen asks Bragg if Thatcher’s premiership might have benefited artists simply by giving them something to push against. “I’m not sure a few good Billy Bragg albums was worth the price of lost industries and wasted lives,” Bragg says. Although he’s been recognized for his politically-charged songs, those themes have also kept him off the charts. “She helped define me, but she also helped to marginalize me,” he says.

For Bragg, the best Thatcher-related song from that era is “Stand Down Margaret” by the English Beat, which he’s listened to again this week. “It was interesting looking back at the music from that period and seeing the pressure that we were able to put on,” he says. “[It] ultimately moved not just through our supporters, but her own supporters and her own party and her own cabinet, and she was forced to stand down.”

Billy Bragg is touring the US all this month supporting his new record Tooth and Nail.


→ Do you have a favorite Margaret Thatcher ode or send up? Tell us in a comment below.

    Music Playlist
  1. Thatcherites
    Artist: Billy Bragg
    Album: William Bloke
    Label: Yep Roc Records
    Purchase: Amazon
  2. Between The Wars
    Artist: Billy Bragg
    Album: Life's A Riot
    Label: CD PRESENTS
    Purchase: Amazon
  3. Whine and Grine/Stand Down Margaret
    Artist: The English Beat
    Album: I Just Can't Stop It (Remastered)
    Label: Shout! Factory
    Purchase: Amazon


Billy Bragg

Produced by:

Michele Siegel

Comments [16]

Paul W from Dayton, Ohio

Obviously, there's a strong vein of Thatcher criticism throughout Elvis Costello's work, but my favourite -- and the most overt -- is "Tramp The Dirt Down" from the album SPIKE (1989). It crosses my mind whenever I look forward to outliving heinous public figures like Rupert Murdoch and Dick Cheney. (Though my wife says merely tramping down dirt isn't enough for Cheney's grave and felt a scatological act is more appropriate, but I digress...)

Also like the aforementioned "Black Boys On Mopeds" by Sinead O'Connor and "Ghost Town" by The Specials.

Apr. 22 2013 11:40 AM

Sue Townsend's sweet and very often hilarious fictitious diaries featured Britain's social and political life in the 1980s through the eyes of Adrian Mole, a boy born to working class parents in 1967. Townsend followed the first one, The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 3/4 (1982), with The Growing Pains of Adrian Mole (1985), in which Adrian is still at the age when good and evil are still easy to tell apart. I've always remembered his Thatcher poem, which is printed below. (More diaries followed the first two.)

Mrs Thatcher (Saturday, 6 November -- Growing Pains)

Do you weep, Mrs Thatcher, do you weep?
Do you wake, Mrs Thatcher, in your sleep?
Do you weep like a sad willow?
On your Marks and Spencer's pillow?
Are your tears molten steel?
Do you weep?
Do you wake with 'Three Million' on your brain?
Are you sorry that they'll never work again?
When you're dressing in your blue, do you see the waiting queue?
Do you weep, Mrs Thatcher, do you weep?

Apr. 20 2013 08:57 PM
Frank from Philadelphia from Philadelphia

My chief association with Margaret Thatcher, apart from her being Ronald Reagan's political twin sister across the pond, is from the film "Bedrooms and Hallways," in which the main character Leo (Kevin McKidd) forces himself to think of her in order to squelch libidinous thoughts about the ostensibly straight Brendan (played by the smokin' hot James Purefoy).

Catch it at about minute 4:00 --

Apr. 16 2013 09:17 PM
smartalek from Boston, MA

I always forget something:
@ Mr Ian Davidson from Auchtermuchty:
I'm far too ignorant on both the facts of Baroness Thatcher's regime, and the impacts of her policies on the UK both then and since, to have any ability to judge, or to respond to, your assessments of her legacy.
But I am, perhaps, appropriately positioned to respond -- humbly and respectfully -- to the observation that the Studio 360 piece with Billy Bragg lacked "balance."
Here on our side of the pond, npr programs often function as one of the very few places in which can be found any alternative views whatsoever, to provide the tiniest bit of (necessarily partial, incomplete, and limited) "balance" for the overwhelmingly conservative and corporate slants that not only pervade and underlie, but entirely define, the vast majority of the "news" media, on which most Americans generally rely for their current-events info.
The very first quotation that led the first announcement that provided me the news of Mrs Thatcher's passing was a current British leader (the sitting PM, I believe), crediting her with having "saved Britain," and nary a dissenting word followed.
When over 90% of the "news" here is so consistently and overwhelmingly reflective of the corporatist worldviews, and designed to further the interests of the multinational conglomerates that own and operate not only our media, but also our private sector, our financial interests, and almost all levels and branches of our government, there's no need for one program, on one non-commercial network, giving voice to one alternate viewpoint, to also provide any further representation of the very aether of which the entirety of our commercial media world is composed.

Apr. 14 2013 10:54 PM
SJCain from Seattle, Wa

For music inspired by Thatcher's reign, check out Test Dept.'s early records, especially The Unacceptable Face of Freedom.

Apr. 14 2013 10:30 PM
smartalek from Boston, MA

I'm with Mr. Bragg about The [English] Beat's brilliant (and highly danceable!) "Stand Down, Margaret" as the preëminent track that mentions Teh Iron Lady by name.
But no Maggie-Playlist can be complete without the Dire Straits masterpiece (composed and lyrics both by Mark Knopfler, IIRC -- which is never a safe bet, so pls don't quote me on that without checking), "Iron Hand," off the "On Every Street" album.
It's every bit as powerful as the far more famous "Brothers in Arms," and describes, in beautifully ironic terms, the assault on striking miners by Thatcher's peacekeepers.
You can check it out here if you wish (with lyrics):

There are also some great live versions to be found on YT.

Apr. 14 2013 09:45 PM
Ian Davidson from Auchtermuchty

So very disappointing to witness PBS have some second rate, three chord guitar strummer like Billy Bragg come on and spout rhetorically regarding his perspective on the Thatcher years without providing some balance. Yes, she was a politician who polarised opinions - so all the more reason to present the alternative perspective to the same old stuff about neutering British industry, blah, blah. At the time of her election, Great Britain was the sick man of Europe and its standing on the world stage was at an all time low. Thankfully Thatcher stemmed much of the rot (although too much of the Industrial base had been irreparably damaged by Red Robbo and his ilk to be saved).

Your article made we wonder whether America is still envious of the fact that the greatest politician of the post war years was British and not American.

Apr. 14 2013 07:19 PM

We have absolutely lost our way as human beings, and this story, no doubt, shows that this is NOT just an American phenomenon.

Apr. 14 2013 02:26 PM
Lauren from St. Louis, MO

Black Boys on Mopeds, Sinead O'Connor.

Apr. 14 2013 02:18 PM
Hilnel from Canterbury, NH

The terrific musical version of "Billy Elliot"(based on the movie, music by Elton John, book and lyrics by Lee Hall) is a potent critique of Margaret Thatcher and what she stood for. It features a really frightening scene of the violent suppression of the coal-mine strikes by riot police, ordered by the Thatcher government. But my favorite anti-Thatcher moment in the show is the song "Merry Christmas Maggie Thatcher" - it reminded me of how essential humor was in fighting back against the ugly, exclusionary politics of the 1980s, both in the UK and the US.

Apr. 14 2013 11:29 AM
Anne from CT

I had a different experience to Billy Bragg during the eighties in England. Contrary to his comments about ‘us versus them’, in my view, Margaret Thatcher swept away the establishment and inspired young people to believe they could rise in society like never before. She had a meritocratic approach and was very much an advocate for the workingman and woman.

‘Sisters are Doin’ it for Themselves’ – The Eurythmics

Apr. 14 2013 11:27 AM
charles from NYC

Crass - How Does it Feel (To Be a Mother of a Thousand Dead)? |

Apr. 14 2013 11:18 AM
Thomas from Maryland

I spent a few months working on contract in the U.K., and I remarked a great deal of animosity toward Mrs. Thatcher. Two signs of distaste for the P.M. particularly caught my attention. One was a in an Ipswitch pet shop window: rubber doggie chew toys formed in the shape of 'Spitting Image' heads of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. The other5 was in a corner shop in Colchester: squares of toilet paper printed with a line drawing of the P.M., meant to be used as floating targets.

Apr. 13 2013 02:21 PM
Anthony Makara from Manchester

Margaret Thatcher introduced ideology into British politics and her philosophy was a complete antithesis of the respected paternalism of invoked by pre-Thatcher Conservative governments. This saw government picking winners and losers, creating the great divisions and tensions that we still see in the UK today. Worst of all the Thatcherite ideology allowed the government to pass the blame for macroeconomic failings like unemployment, away from politicians and onto the unemployed themselves. This lack of accountability has allowed politicians to escape responsibility for mass unemployment that has persisted in the uk for three decades. The very name Margaret Thatcher has become toxic for many people in the UK and the very fact that there will be watertight security for her funeral service bears this out.

Apr. 13 2013 07:31 AM

Political satire virtually disappeared in Britain after Thatcher was deposed, even though every subsequent PM extended her policies. What this tells you is that for the likes of Ben Elton, who morphed into a wet Tory some time later, it was more to do with Thatcher HERself than any of her policies. John Lloyd's iconic depiction of Thatcher in a man's business suit sent one message, this is an uppity woman trying to play with the big boys. He too, like most of the Cambridge types whose political convictions were more to do with their mommie issues than their politics, gave up their political stances once "that woman" was gone.

The music industry is just as bad, if not worse than the comedy industry when it comes to this sort of bigoted hypocrisy.

I hate Thatcher's politics, but I've been more annoyed this week at the level of the assaults on comments threads from the UK. She was no friend to women, but that doesn't mean I should stand by while others use this time as a platform to air their misogyny.

Apr. 12 2013 06:32 PM
Martin from Scotland

1) TheThe: Infected (or 51st State)
2) Hue & Cry: Labour of Love
3) The Specials: Ghost Town
4) Billy Bragg: To Have and Have Not
5) Elvis Costello: Tramp The Dirt Down (which musically is rather beautiful)

Apr. 12 2013 01:41 PM

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