Politics this week has had a shaking up from Sir John Major and Russell Brand. Major left Parliament in 2001, while Brand has admitted that he has never even voted at an election; the two are hardly front-line politicians. I’ll say something in another blog about Major, because I think there is a connection between the two interventions in terms of popular response to political language. I thought I was arriving on the scene a bit late blogging about Brand, but there are plenty of others still offering views, so here goes.
Brand attracted some scorn from the political class for his Newsnight interview with Jeremy Paxman, but if you listen carefully to what he said – and strip it of the bluster Brand’s insecurity cloaked it in – there are some valid points in there. I’ve selected some quotations which shed a bit of light on things.
The first, and in my eyes objectionable, question to him was “Who are you to edit a political magazine?” Why shouldn’t he? It’s a fatuous question. The answer “I was asked to by an attractive woman” was a daft one, but it is probably a fair reflection of Brand’s thought processes. What you see is what you get.
The second, “Is it true you don’t vote?” was the one that really got people agitated, on the grounds that if you don’t vote, you can’t complain about the state of things. There is something in that, if it means you are totally disengaged from politics. But I’ve abstained in the past at a general election when I felt the Conservatives had lost their minds and nobody would accuse me of disengagement. Brand made a similar point a bit later on. It was a daft suggestion from Paxman that Brand has “no authority to talk about politics” because he doesn’t vote.
But Brand answered weakly to start with, saying he looks for “other alternatives that might be of service to humanity”, and he wasn’t able to give an example of one. He did say what it shouldn’t do – it shouldn’t “destroy the planet, create massive economic disparity, shouldn’t ignore the needs of the people.” Modern political movements are often defined mainly in opposition to an existing order as much as they are a positive expression of a world-view. It’s why the Liberal Party survived after the Second World War, it’s why the Gang of 4 left Labour under Foot. UKIP is opposed to many things (but not always all of them at the same time). Brand got some benefit of the doubt, even if he’s a bit vague about it.
It’s a reflection of the scepticism about modern politics that, given a choice of several parties across the UK, people like Brand feel none of them are any good. I don’t think such people should be lightly dismissed, and I think there was a coded warning along those lines in Major’s comments.
I think the best point Brand made was the next one: “The burden of proof is on the people with the power”. We voters are sovereign, but we only get to exercise direct power intermittently at the polls. Most of the time our influence is entirely indirect. When Brand said there are “hierarchical systems that have been preserved through generations” he could be talking about the House of Lords (even now partly hereditary), or the civil service, or even BBC management which has generally done what it likes with our money for nearly 90 years. This was his best passage, but he got tangled up in attempted grandiloquence and failed ultimately to articulate his point properly.
Paxman’s question, “Why don’t you change it, then?” didn’t immediately get any real answer. He was on somewhat shaky ground when he went on to talk about coming from an “underclass” in which drug addiction flourishes. He has done something about his drug addiction, and did so largely independently of his growing, capitalism-enhanced, wealth. I don’t think the state tackles addiction in the right way – I am a huge admirer of Brand’s advocacy of abstinence-based recovery (rather than shoving Methadone into people). But any addict only ever recovers because they take responsibility for their actions. He’s quite capable of showing a path back into control for addicts, so it’s unfortunate that he can’t offer a more reasoned method for the people to regain political power than vague hopes for a revolution.
It’s from this point on that it really went downhill for Russell Brand. He referred to the “300 Americans who have the same amount of wealth as the 85 million poorest Americans”, which is all well and good, but let’s do the same comparison between British celebs with houses in Hollywood and the homeless on Britain’s streets.
Eventually Brand told Paxman we should have a “Socialist egalitarian system based on redistribution of wealth, heavy taxation of corporations and massive responsibility for energy companies and any companies exploiting the environment”. Really? Why not just nationalise everything and save having to collect all that tax? Especially if you are then going to say, “Profit is a filthy word, because wherever there is profit, there is also deficit”. If you don’t like profit, then why not abolish the profit motive? That last quote is the low-point of the interview in terms of lack of meaning. Or maybe it’s when Paxman asks “How would they [the government Brand admits we’d still need to collect taxes] be chosen?” and Brand said “Don’t expect me to sit in a bloody hotel room and devise a global utopian system”. Brand urged people not to vote, “Be in reality now”. I winced a bit at that point, as reason disappeared in a cloud of slogans.
But even then Paxman let Brand back in with “We’re not going to solve world problems with facetiousness”. I can’t think of a deadlier weapon in politics than well-directed ridicule, Paxman himself is a master of that art. Why shouldn’t Brand dish some of it out himself? We only have a free press now because facetious writers like Defoe and Swift were prepared to risk life and limb publishing their facetious pamphlets 300 years ago.
“The time is now” said Brand, “the Occupy movement made a difference, it introduced into the popular lexicon the idea of the 1% versus the 99%…No-one’s doing anything about the financial affiliations to the Conservative Party”. Back off into tin-foil hat territory again. “Aren’t you more bored than anyone? Listening to their lies, their nonsense?” Paxo didn’t answer the point, but Brand should realise that political inquisition is a sifting kind of business, like prospecting for gold in a muddy river. It’s hard work, and there’s no guarantee you’ll find anything shiny when you’ve emptied out your sieve. But if you allow yourself to be bored, you’ll never get anywhere.
Brand exclaimed “I am angry, because for me it’s real, it’s not just some peripheral thing. There’s going to be a revolution, it’s totally going to happen. This is the end.” It was all getting very “down with this sort of thing!”
He ended by railing against “lachrymose moments of sentimentality” and “emotional porn”, declaring his right as an actor to take action. And yet the feeling I took away from listening to that interview was that while Brand had made some telling points, and doesn’t deserve all of the flak he has had since, I’d just spent ten minutes listening to someone relying heavily on sentiment and emotion, and not all that much on fact and reason.
If we scored it as a contest between an interviewer and a politician, Paxman won easily on points. But the public, as so often, will see a couple of heavy blows landed by their man, will laud Brand as a plucky fighter for getting into the ring at all, and wonder how the judges scored the fight against him. Politicians should be uneasy at the acclaim Brand gets from the disengaged, and ask themselves what they are going to do about it.
I say constantly that politicians can learn a huge amount about how to win over and hold an audience from comedians. But Russell Brand is too much of a “stream of consciousness” to be someone I’d recommend as a model, and if he wants to do stuff like this and be taken seriously, he’s got a lot to learn from the master. Go and get yourself some DVDs of Mark Thomas, Russell.