A great night to be in Pittsburgh. The local baseball team, the Pirates, were attempting to reach their first play-offs in 21 years. Meanwhile in Washington DC, a Republican party rejected at the polls last year was seeking to increase its popularity by bringing the government to a halt. On the Strip, a bustling street along the banks of the Allegheny River, it seemed everyone was wearing a shirt declaring his or her allegiance to the Pirates. In the pizza joint where we’d gone before I played my first Pittsburgh gig in nearly two decades, the TV above the bar reported on the stalemate in Washington. But it didn’t feel much like a shutdown. No one in the place seemed to care that the Republicans might be in a hole, nor willing to suggest that they stop digging.
Someone who might have benefited from that kind of advice is Paul Dacre, editor of the Daily Mail. If he had hoped to undermine Ed Miliband’s reputation by attacking his late father, the plan backfired spectacularly. Right before the Privy Council was due to assess the newspaper industry’s plan for self-regulation, Dacre gave us a reminder of how irresponsible editors can be. Granting Miliband the right to reply seemed, on the face of it, a reasonable thing to do. But taking the opportunity to further attack Miliband Sr dragged the whole affair on for a week, not just eclipsing the Conservative conference but dragging the war record of Dacre’s own father into the fray. Result? The stature of Ed Miliband was enhanced. The stature of the press — less so.
The America I have been touring is convulsed by Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act, which has come into force this week extending basic insurance coverage to more Americans. A considerable step forward, yet fierce opposition from the Republican party has ensured that many of those in the greatest need will remain without cover. Twenty-six states have opted out of an extension of the Medicaid programme, affecting about half the population but two-thirds of America’s poor, uninsured African-Americans and single mothers. Fifty years ago, many of these states, predominantly in the south, regularly passed ‘Jim Crow’ laws, local statutes designed specifically to marginalise African-Americans. It took the civil rights movement to make that a thing of the past. But when the glitches on the Affordable Care Act have been ironed out and the nation sees who remains without insurance, many Americans may come to view refusal to implement ‘Obamacare’ as a 21st-century form of Jim Crow.
The Republicans currently seeking to overturn the result of the last election seem convinced that affordable health care is somehow un-American. This appears to chime with Paul Dacre’s assertion that Ralph Miliband’s Marxist beliefs meant that he hated Britain. It’s a common assumption of the right: they ‘own’ freedom and anybody who seeks to question them is a traitor. I caught a whiff of it myself on Saturday night at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco. I was teasing the audience by insisting that we Brits invented Americana — an increasingly popular genre inspired by American roots music (I told them about skiffle and how it inspired the Beatles, Stones, et al). A female heckler took offence and began shouting about the second world war. The essence of her argument was that her father had fought to give me freedom of speech — so I should shut up about America!
The truth about how we came to enjoy our freedoms is a little more complex than that, but has always involved challenging those who believe they have a monopoly on truth. Since Magna Carta, the British people have sought to hold the powerful to account. Parliament had to take on the monarchy to win its right to represent the people. Only when workers organised into trade unions were they able to secure fair working conditions. Women were forced to challenge men in order to win the right to vote. In 1945, the voters of Britain had to turf out a victorious Winston Churchill in order to gain free health care. All were called traitors in their time, accused of hating Britain and all it stood for.
Throughout our history, the British people have seen their liberties abused by those who believed that they were above the law. This has given rise to a determination to hold those in power to account that runs deep in our culture and is the reason why, after the troubling disclosures of the Leveson inquiry, few of us now trust newspapers to regulate themselves. Paul Dacre’s clumsy intervention in this debate will only stiffen the resolve of those of us who love Britain and want to see the freedom of the press guaranteed by an independent regulator.
Billy Bragg starts the British leg of his tour in Cambridge on 18 November.