Why Politicians Should Be Running Scared From Russell Brand
Scorn, ridicule and derision have been poured upon Russell Brand’s grand visions of a post-revolutionary Utopia by political commentators, journalists, fellow celebrities, and even politicians themselves. However, there is a strong argument to be made that his loquacious lividness and his calls for anarchy and revolution are symptomatic of the cancers virulently festering within British politics and indicative of exactly what the ‘political class’ and Westminster should fear the most. Whether it is triumph or tragedy, Brand is currently perceived by disenfranchised, disempowered elements of the electorate as a more viable option than any of the ‘legitimate’ opponents who are the objects of his derision. I do not think it is hard to see why.
Brand doesn’t talk in the garbled Thames-estuary, public school boy vernacular that is the province of almost every single politician you could care to think of. His voice is a familiar one, a recognisable one – and not just because of his celebrity. He is like the disenchanted man down the pub granted the linguistic power to express what he was only previously capable of pervasively feeling. At times he sounds like your mate, and the next minute he produces sentences of dark sinuous (at times loquaciously pretentious) poetry to tear into the people that you despise but feel too inadequate or too intimidated to take on yourself. Despite his celebrity, Brand’s manner, his recognisable dialect and the empathetic bond concomitant of his roots and troubled past make him feel infinitely more relevant to young people than the privileged, privately educated upper-middle class boys’ club of Cameron, Clegg, Farage and perhaps to a lesser extent Miliband. Where, for all their relevance to the benefit and working classes, they might as well come from some hideous version of Narnia, Brand is accessible in a way that should frighten them. Ten million people watching his interview with Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight (a rough increase of 900% upon the show’s regular viewing figures) would point to more people being interested in what Brand has to say than should be comfortable for politicians.
Indeed, despite the eagerness of journalists, broadcasters and politicians to swat him away like nothing more than an irritating fly, a lot of what Brand has to say is tragically representative of reality. He has successfully pointed out the utter lack of viable alternatives to the same bland identikit parties that traditionally dominate British politics. The vast majority of his claims about the disenchantment of the electorate, the mistrust of politicians, and apathy towards the democratic process have been proven to be far more substantive than what The Guardian’s Nick Cohen simply dismisses as the snot nosed whining of a ‘Beverly Hills Buddhist’. In fact many of Brand’s bold claims in his New Statesman editorial and in his subsequent interview with Jeremy Paxman have been independently statistically verified.
What Brand is onto is that the current political system can be likened to being forced to vote for a contestant in an X Factor final that firstly you didn’t want to watch and secondly you despised every single act in. You dislike the show and its pompous, alien masquerade; you detest the competitors whose vanity and questionable ability have little or nothing to do with you, and so the only hope you can hold out for is a kind of preventative sabotage. It is less about who you want, and more about who you don’t. What Russell Brand has realised is that there is a vacuum in British politics because, and apologies for expanding the X Factor analogy, even if the participants are professing to sing different songs, they are, however, coming to sound increasingly similar. Therefore, the business end of democracy in Britain feels too much like casualty prevention and not enough like choice.
Brand’s belief that the ‘choice’ in the democratic process is illusory and fallacious has led to him indirectly labelling the electorate in Britain as politically impotent. This, he argues, is a group of people – a nation even – whose interests are not represented by an irrelevant, out-of-touch ‘political class’ and ruling elite, with the supposedly helpless electorate powerless to change anything about it.
There certainly appears to be a disturbing lack of genuine variety amongst the traditional parties whose policies and politics have becomes increasingly homogeneous. There seems to have been a sea change from the days when an electoral campaign was about genuinely attempting to convince the voting public that your way of thinking was the right way, to a depressing void where the parties have become like the not-quite-there, insecure teenager constantly changing their clothes and hairstyle to satiate the whims of their peers rather than moving forward with confidence in exactly who or what they are. The parties trot out the same platitudes about crime, education, national security, taxes and healthcare whilst making empty promises that they uniformly fail to keep. Of course there remain some fundamental differences, but the trouble is – hence Brand’s current prominence – these are perhaps only visible to people who are already highly politically engaged. Brand suggests that to the common man it just feels like wading through slightly different smelling piles of effluence.
This is another reason why politicians should either envy or fear Russell Brand. As flawed as his ideas may be he has unquestionably driven political engagement and interest within groups that are not already highly politicised, something that every political party – with the sad exception of the incredibly kidologically clever but incredibly immoral and dangerously bigoted UKIP – are failing to do. He, unlike the ‘political class’ who remain remote and aloof in the eyes of those outside their limited sphere, is attempting to highlight the deficiencies of a political system that is woefully inadequate and apathetic to the needs of the people. Rather than playing the game of victim blaming, Brand also recognises that there is a vulnerable – in some quarters paralysed – underclass that needs protection and intervention to break the grinding cycles of poverty, inequity and social disadvantage; his call to arms is to them; his war is one of anarchic dismantling, of bringing about the destruction of a system that he sees as having become a slave to free-market capitalism.
Whether or not he is right, he is certainly more prescient in recognising the longing that so many people feel for change, or maybe even revolution, than his Westminster counterparts. Whilst the prime minister or electoral candidates are verbally shackled by lies, broken promises and mistakes in interviews, Brand is able to speak with freedom and honesty. This has led to the opening of dialogue which otherwise may never have been had and is arguably the greatest political achievement that Brand is ever likely to make. Sadly, his answers, or rather the lack of them, are what undermine the explosive potential of his well-meaning but misguided ‘manifesto’.
In reality Brand’s attempts to empower and mobilise young people against the established order is ironically more likely to do the opposite. Voting may not currently feel like much of a choice, but a choice it still is, and regardless of whether you, I, or anybody else choose to vote – somebody is still going to park their backside on a bench in Westminster and make decisions that affect the way we are able to lead our lives. Brand rightly recognises the political wasteland that is developing in Britain, a wasteland within which only just over half of those eligible to vote choose to do so, a wasteland within which the insidious far-right policies of parties like UKIP are gaining traction whilst masquerading as progressive politics for the people of Britain. What he doesn’t do is call for all of the disenfranchised groups to unite and utilise the system that is oppressing them against itself. Here is a country waiting for the emergence of a party that is not Labour, Conservative or Lib-Dem, or a single-issue outsider like the Greens or UKIP, a party led by, and for, people that are not out-of-touch Eton educated political careerists. Brand calls for revolution, but he doesn’t call for when, or where, or how. And he conveniently ignores and whitewashes the often-bloody aftermath of revolution and its other accompanying woes. Perhaps Robert Webb was right to challenge him to read a little Orwell.
The democratic system is a perfectly good one for people to use in order to change what they are dissatisfied with. Instead of proclamations of doom and litanies of criticism, if Brand really knew what he was doing, he would be looking to empower disenfranchised groups by, at worst, teaching them how to lobby their MPs and engage in the political process or, at best, form their own legitimate parties with distinct philosophies and politics that look to challenge the established ‘political class’ and engage the 42% of the electorate who choose not to vote because of their disdain for the possibilities (or lack thereof) they are given.
Ultimately, whilst Brand’s visions of a yellow-brick Utopia are simultaneously commendable and impractical, he has regardless drawn attention to the dangerous space yawning within British politics, a space where divisive politics and right-wing hatred are incubating. He has proven that discontentment and disenfranchisement are diseases rife among Britain’s disadvantaged that threaten to destroy them. He has demonstrated that young people are not disinterested in politics, just disinterested with what politics is currently capable of offering them. He has recognised and poured scorn on the growing homogeneity of the populist parties and highlighted the exclusivity of politics, rightly criticising it for predominantly being the province of middle-aged, privately-educated, white, middle-class men. Given all of this, Britain is crying out for someone to seize the democratic reins and take things in a different direction. Sadly – beneath the bravado and bastardised Marxism-Pantheism-Spiritualism mangled into the suggestion of an opaque revolution – Russell Brand’s answer is a depressing one: do nothing. The hope remains that the dialogue he has opened – one brimming with potential – proves a meaningful catalyst for changes within the system.
One thing is for sure – whilst politicians are perhaps right not to fear Russell Brand himself, they should be running for the hills from the realities that he has presented to the people that they remain incapable of reaching.