What to think of Russell Brand’s recent guest-editorial slot in The New Statesman? Or of his (now) famous interview with combative, impatient, veteran Newsnight anchor, Jeremy Paxman? The issue at stake was an important one, democracy, and how our current political representatives have failed it. Yet, in the end it was Russell Brand, the comedian, Russell Brand the actor and Russell Brand, the womaniser, who hogged the limelight. I’m not sure that was Russell’s intention, but like a bull terrier, whose reputation as an aggressive dog follows it everywhere, so is Brand punished for previous misdemeanours.
You can’t fault him for putting his agenda on the table from the word go when he took temporary charge of the political magazine The New Statesman. According to Brand, imagining the overthrow of the current political system is the only way I can be enthused about politics.
My problem, if I can call it problem, is that I am also enthused about politics. Whilst I agree with Brand’s core message that the status quo needs shaking and parts of it need dismantling, I disagree with his methods.
Politics has definitely taken a blow in recent years in the UK. I have (sadly) witnessed its downfall. From the euphoria that surrounded New Labour in 1997 when it came to power (I had just arrived in London) to the hundreds of thousands who marched against the illegal invasion of Iraq, I have had an almost front-row seat in all these events. At this point, British humour compels me to ask myself the question: and you’re still here? How come you haven’t taken the first flight back to Cuba?
Because it’s not that simple. Because politics – and politicians – are not that straightforward. If they were, we would have reached Utopia many centuries ago. We tend to see the political process as a system created by politicians and acted on by politicians. Democracy follows from that notion and therefore, when politicians fail, politics fail and, inevitably, democracy fails.
I believe that democracy is a system you create on a daily basis. This “you” is “us”, really, those of us who, through our attitude, alertness, morals, respect to each other and collective responsibility, take the bull by the horns, so to speak. We should never export these ingredients to politicians hoping they will make the soup for us. From that point of view, I agree with Russell Brand’s call to a “revolution of consciousness”. To me, however, this social movement would include the ballot as well.
I have lost count of how many times I have heard or read people saying that they can’t be bothered to vote because “all politicians are the same”. First of all, not all politicians are the same, just like not all police officers are the same, not all doctors are the same and not all athletes are the same. Some sportspeople even cheat, did you know that? Imagine if I were to say, based on the Armstrong case, that all cyclists are cheats. Why, then, do we change the language when talking about the people who are supposed to represent us?
Because they are an easy target. More importantly, they divert attention from the collective responsibility I mentioned before and our failure to act it out. This is not to excuse wrong behaviour. Members of parliament, prime ministers, deputy prime ministers, presidents and vice-presidents, must be held accountable for the decisions they make. However, they do not operate in isolation and they should never be allowed to do so. They are part of society and so are we.
That is one of the reasons why I still vote. Unlike Russell, I have not got the privilege of being apathetic. I know that the box I tick, the candidate I choose and the party I support might let me down, but I am willing to accept that as a side effect, if by my actions I can still keep our imperfect, deeply flawed and hypocrisy-ridden democracy alive.
The best case scenario of my decision to vote is a programme like Sure Start, guaranteeing every child in Great Britain the best beginning in life through a combination of family, education and health support. The worst case scenario is an illegal invasion like the one in Iraq in 2003. If I were to abstain one of the consequences would be the one I have already seen played out in other parts of the UK. What if by withdrawing my vote (which everyone is entitled to do), I brought in the kind of person I disliked so much that I would then try to vote him/her out of office? Ironic? Yes. Scary? Even more.
That is what Russell Brand conveniently forgets. He is in a position where the jackboot worn by the heavily tattooed, racist, fascist thug from the England Defence League or the British National Party will not reach him. I am not in that position, I am the one who will get his head kicked in because a member of parliament or councillor with racist views has been elected in my borough or ward. Even if they do not succeed in passing the laws they and their supporters want, they can create a very hostile environment for people like me. Yet, that would be, methinks, the last thing on Brand’s mind.
I do not disagree with Russell when he writes or talks about the disenfranchisement of young people in Britain today. I agree with him that the current political climate generates apathy. But apathy is breeding ground, not just for unpopular politicians, but for the ones with the nasty, hardcore right-wing views. I would like to believe that Russell hates them as much as I do.
Like many before him, Brand does not offer any solutions. Or he does, but they are of the wishy-washy, woolly type you find amongst adherents to the Socialist Workers’ Party, a body about which the less I write, the better for everybody. The way forward for him is a two-pronged one: spirituality leads one end, whilst politics (I thought he despised it!) leads the other. I must confess I lost faith in him a little when he explained how he had arrived at this spiritual Damascene conversion. To cut the story short, it involved a trip to a slum in Kenya, another trip weeks later to a fashion show in Paris and a guilty conscience. The political solution he mentioned before? Conspicuous by its absence.
Unlike his detractors, I like Russell Brand’s style. In fact, I still miss his weekly football column in The Guardian. In his essay in The New Statesman, he articulated very well the frustrations many of us feel. He also did it in his interview with Paxman. It is true that there is a bit of the cheeky-monkey about him, but at least he does not organise concerts on behalf of a whole continent and “forgets” to include musicians from that continent (Bob Geldoff, I’m talking to you). But democracy needs more than yet another namby-pamby manifesto. What democracy needs is a shot in the arm. What Russell Brand is suggesting is a shot in the head.
Next Post: “Let’s Talk...”, to be published on Wednesday 27th November at 11:59pm (GMT)