Tuesday, 31 December 2019

Nineteen in '19: The Three Dimensions of Freedom

I've read far less in recent years than I would like. To help remedy this, I've set myself the modest target of reading nineteen books in 2019. When I finish one, a thumbnail review here will follow.

16/19: The Three Dimensions of Freedom by Billy Bragg

The blurb: At a time when opinion trumps facts and truth is treated as nothing more than another perspective, free speech has become a battleground. While authoritarians and algorithms threaten democracy, we argue over who has the right to speak.

To protect ourselves from encroaching tyranny, we must look beyond this one-dimensional notion of what it means to be free and, by reconnecting liberty to equality and accountability, restore the individual agency engendered by the three dimensions of freedom.

The review: in the 1985 Spitting Image book there was a spoof of Smash Hits magazine, in which fictional lyrics by contemporary artists were printed for comic effect. One featured artist was Billy Bragg, and the biting satire of the day imagined his lyrics to be something like (and this is from memory, I don't have the book any more ) "Kids are good, grown-ups are bad, vote Labour, vote Labour, vote Labour. Vote, vote, vote - Labour!". I know, hilarious, right? But it made a point, of sorts. For Bill, always engaged, always an activist, knew what he felt and knew what was wrong. In his keenness to tell us all, sometimes the message was muddied, or incomplete. I remember going to see him in Brighton in the very early 90s, with The Man Of Cheese. Between songs, Bill would give his views on the rights and wrongs of the political landscape, something he is still inclined to do. But I remember feeling disappointed by it at the time, as it really wasn't that far away from the Spitting Image parody - it was essentially, "Good things are good, bad things are bad and have to change." Truisms without solutions, basically.

The great thing about the Bard of Barking, though, is that he maintains the courage of his convictions, stays true to his roots, and knows that to be active, to be effective, you need to learn about what is going on. To continue the paraphrasing, you need to understand what has led to the good things and bad things. Only by understanding the bad things can you affect change on them. Only by learning how we've got into a sorry mess can we hope to pilot a route out. And Billy has learned, oh yes. It's no accident that he appears regularly on Question Time these days. He is no longer the working man proclaiming simplistic messages - he's the informed voice of the liberal, common man. Nowhere is that more evident that in this short polemic, the first of Faber Social’s new series of political pamphlets.

Billy starts with the famous Tony Benn quote, "If one meets a powerful person, ask them five questions: 'What power have you got? Where did you get it from? In whose interests do you exercise it? To whom are you accountable? And how can we get rid of you?'" (amusingly, he later quotes Danny Dyer on the same theme), before going on to define his three dimensions of freedom as liberty, equality and accountability. There follows a section on each, all of which are effective and one of which works brilliantly.

For where the messages on liberty and equality are, at times, slightly overlapping and prone to occasional thematic repetition, the chapter on accountability really hits the spot. Liberty and equality are very much viewed through the lens of history, whereas in his perspective on accountability, whilst still explored in an historic context, Billy finds much more amiss in the current landscape. Whilst there is nothing to really disagree with in any of the chapters, it is the section on accountability that comes closest to a clarion call, and is all the better for it.

The only real problem with this book is something that Billy recognises himself - our current political and societal landscape is so polarised, so divided, so entrenched in immovable opinion, that this book is unlikely to win anybody over. Indeed, I doubt very much that it will be read by anyone who doesn't already agree with the opinions expressed between its covers. That's a shame, because it's a book that makes you think, that leaves you wondering what you can do to make a difference. Because there are still no solutions ... just more to think about as you try to come to your own conclusions about what needs to be done. That, at least, has to be a good thing, right?

The bottom line: thought-provoking personal political opinion that leads you to the inevitable conclusion that, in the words of the song, there really should be no power without accountability.

Since everything online is rated these days: ★★★★★☆


  1. Mental note to self: must read more in 2020. Until that happens: Happy New Year.

    1. Likewise, on both counts. Only managed 16 and a half books in 2019!

  2. As Jez says, I must read more too. Happy New Year to you Martin, and all the very best with your exciting venture to come!
    Re. the political landscape, I read this post today on one of the blogs I follow and thought you might find its message resonates too:

    1. And HNY to you, C. Thanks for the link - read that and reminded myself that, in amongst all the dire happenings of 2019, there were some good things too, some rays of light. Or hope, at least.

  3. I was hoping there might be another 3 reviews to come. Never mind, you did better than me this year. Happy new one.