golden jubilee weekend - the other side of the story

If you live in the UK or one of the Commonwealth countries, it can not have escaped your notice that this weekend is the climax of the Jubilee celebrations. For those of you lucky enough to live elsewhere, let me explain. Queen Elizabeth II is celebrating the 50th anniversary of her coronation. Some of you may even remember the Silver Jubilee. I certainly do. Dressed in red, white and blue, waving as the Queen drove through our village, followed by street parties and Union Jack icing on feed-the-five-thousand sized cakes... I expect pretty much a re-run of events this time around. To celebrate the event in '77, the Sex Pistols released a song, the emblematic anti-monarchy anthem, God Save the Queen, the irony of which was missed by not an insignificant number of people who never really listened to the lyrics.

Tonight I witnessed, 25 years on, and with much more awareness of the relevance, a replay of that same situation. I was preparing dinner and had TOTP on in the background. When Atomic Kitten came on I felt an overwhelming urge to switch channels, but, distracted by my onion bhajis, I never got round to it. Thankfully. As next up was the god of socialist pop himself, Mr Billy Bragg.

Singing live, with only his guitar as accompaniment, the Bard of Barking sang his latest release, Take Down the Union Jack. The record has reached number 22 in the British charts - a stunning accomplishment, given that the mainstream media has done their utmost to keep it quiet, giving it virtually no airplay whatsoever. (Mad props here to Virgin Radio, who made it song of the week, one of the few stations brave enough to give the song a chance.) The TOTP audience swayed to the melody and even clapped along, but I can't help but wonder if the irony of the set, swathed in Union Jacks, escaped them. They laughed when Billy auto-censored the word piss but it would take a lot to persuade me that the applause at the end of his set was not in response to that, rather than supportive of his social comment. I suspect the beeb are bracing themselves for an onslaught of complaints.

I provide the lyrics below, taken from Mr Bragg's own website.

Take Down The Union Jack
Take down the Union Jack, it clashes with the sunset
And put it in the attic with the emperors 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, its 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 passed its sell-by date

Take down the Union Jack, it clashes with the sunset
And ask our Scottish neighbours if independence looks any good
‘Cos they just might understand how to take an abstract notion
Of personal identity and turn it into nationhood

Is this the 19th century that I’m watching on tv?
The dear old Queen of England handing out those MBEs
Member of the British Empire - that doesn’t sound too good to me
Gilbert and George are taking the piss aren’t they?
Gilbert and George are taking the piss.
What could be more British than here’s a picture of my bum?
Gilbert and George are taking the piss

Take down the Union Jack, it clashes with the sunset
And pile all those history books, but don’t throw them away
They just might have some clues about what it really means
To be an Anglo hyphen Saxon in

WORDS AND MUSIC: Billy Bragg (2002)

What with the patriotic fervour roused by the start of the World Cup (my office is a shameful sea of red and white flags) and the Jubilee madness, the current swell of national pride is not far short of suffocating. Perhaps I would be exaggerating if I described it as jingoism. Perhaps. Thank you Billy, thank you TOTP and Virgin Radio and thank you to all those who bought the single.

Billy Bragg's website can be found at:

permission for fair use of lyrics was requested 19.09.03 via email to
permission received 23.09.03