Book review: Billy Bragg – The Three Dimensions of Freedom

One of the joys of the opening up of “non essential retail” is the opportunity to browse in bookshops, not least with respect to stuff that barely got a mention in mainstream reviews (although this got a paragraph by Melvyn Bragg in the Observer). I wasn’t aware of it until last week.

The singer/songwriter Billy Bragg is not every Liberal Democrat’s cup of tea but he is worth taking seriously for a number of reasons. We are woefully short on political songwriting and he can do that better that most in our day, even if like most of us he can be a bit off-target occasionally. Crucially, he is a committed socialist but flexible in both thought and deed. He is broadly Labour supporting, perhaps a musical latter-day Orwell.

He endorsed the Lib Dems in 2010 and is passionate about PR and other constitutional reforms. In recent elections he campaigned to get Labour, Green and Liberal Democrat parties to stand down in some constituencies to maximise the anti-Tory victories – and we all have our views on that one!

The Three Dimensions of Freedom is an extended pamphlet, a pocket-sized volume of little more than a hundred pages, but I found it well worth the six quid. Published by Faber and Faber in a “Faber Social” series, it is a glorious rant, worthy of affirmation and debate at the same time, if that is possible! It was written in the year Coronavirus minus one but it addresses a central issue that has become ever more urgent during the pandemic – accountability.

It is worth quoting Melvyn Bragg’s mini-review in its entirety

The singer turned author has a flair for pamphleteering. As he fumes midway through this short, sharp broadside: “This is a time of dismissive demagogues promoting a know-nothing politics of swaggering arrogance driven by scorn and spite.” The scoundrels of the piece are many and range from the predictable (capitalism, globalisation, neoliberalism) to the slightly less so (algorithms). Our sole defence, Bragg urges, in prose that has a quiet musicality, is to embrace freedom in all three of its “dimensions”: liberty, equality and accountability.

The right, and especially the extreme right, have repackaged “freedom” for their own purposes but Billy insists that genuine freedom of speech is the antidote to authoritarianism, which was proliferating before Covid and has deepened since the initial outbreak. “In order to be truly free,” he insists, appealing to Voltaire, “we have to accept the equal right of others to exercise the liberty we claim for ourselves.”

This is an impressive combination of rigorous argument and unadorned passion. For years I have argued that we have to find new ways of resisting the authoritarians, or perhaps recapturing some old ways.  I have no desire to damn with faint praise but at its lowest this book/pamphlet can give Liberal Democrats some useful pointers towards priorities while living under a Johnson government.

* Geoff Reid is a retired Methodist minister and represented Eccleshill on Bradford City Council for twelve years

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  • Little Jackie Paper 12th May '21 - 10:09am

    ‘For years I have argued that we have to find new ways of resisting the authoritarians, or perhaps recapturing some old ways.’

    Climate authoritarianism? Covid authoritarianism? Lifestyle authoritarianism?

    Spare me.

  • nigel hunter 12th May '21 - 10:21am

    We have to shout load clear and consistant and not hide behind the pasteing we have had from the days of the coalition. Put fire into the belly of the party and not hide behind the tired old cliques that rule. One policy for example Vince Cables Life long learning that I heard MOGG talking about.Indicating it was theres .People will accept it came from them for they know nothing else.IF WE DO NOT MAKE A NOISE WE WILL BE IGNORED,SIDELINED

  • John Littler 12th May '21 - 6:53pm

    Billy argues for a break up of the UK from an english viewpoint. He describes the UK as an economic union past it’s day. I don’t get this at all. Of course there are cultural differences between England and Scotland but there are between English regions too and once you start balkanisation, where do you stop? Is Cornwall & Mebyon Kernow the next nationalist hotspot waiting to pop up from obscurity?

    Should Scotland go it alone, the 8% budget deficit would be a stark barrier to getting into the EU, where it is not supposed to rise above 3%. The costs of setting aside a reserve fund for a currency would also be huge.

    Then there are the costs loaded on firms from exposing high Scottish distribution costs, no longer economically subsumed next to the larger and less geographically spread English population. Or the cost of duplicating government and it’s functions or Company HQ’s in the capital.

    Should the UK remain outside the EU Single Market and Customs Union, WTO and EU rules would require a hard border around the Tweed and for Scotland and presently 59% of it’s exports go to the rest of the UK, but only 19% to the EU. This could not be reversed any time soon.

    Scottish separation remains an economic basket case for at least a generation. They hold up Ireland and Norway as examples of small country prosperity. But in Eire, the housing situation is in crisis and both countries took many decades to get out of relative poverty after they split from the UK and Sweden retrospectively. Ireland’s model of prosperity is based on ultra low corporation tax rates while Scotland may not be able to duplicate the strategy effectively. Norway was relatively poor until it discovered extensive oil and gas reserves when they were most valuable and retained the rights within the public sector. Now, many North Sea Oil rigs need expensive dismantling.

  • What was it those French Revolutionaries were promoting with their celebrated three-dimensional battle-cry? The one that shares two ‘dimenisons’ with, it seems, Billy Bragg’s ‘Freedom’. Was it government by the populace, and for them? That sounds to me a healthier and more congenial end than ‘freedom’, which is so easily treated as anarchy, like the simple-minded and short term and selfish notion of destroying public statues instead of using them to raise questions in the public mind.

    So I hope that the Liberals — for me ‘democrat’ is self evident and redundant, once we exclude the humbug in ‘Neoliberal’ economics . . .for me Liberal must include as its third dimension that core of the French slogan: Fraternity.

    (PR! UBI! MMT! Hurrah!)

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