Friday, 8 November 2013

Why Russell Brand isn't completely wrong

I can't remember which by-election this was, but it was more than a decade ago, but I had a sort of revelation about the Russell Brand position in politics - which is basically, don't vote; it only encourages them.

I had gone canvassing into a new estate, relatively prosperous, leafy and off a main road.  There were 12 houses in a cul-de-sac.  Every front door opened when I knocked, and everyone said exactly the same: the weren't voting, 'on principle'.

This was not apathy.  Of course it would have been easy for me to snobbishly dismiss the beer-bellies I had seen and call it apathy, but it wouldn't have been true.  It was a moral position they were taking, of deep disapproval.

Even so, I am surprised to hear Jeremy Paxman coming to Brand's defence.  If anyone knows about the compromises inherent in the art of politics, he does.  The issue isn't about lying, as Paxman claims.  What politicians do is frame the truth (didn't I promise not to use that word a few blogs back?) - but doing so for a purpose.

So I don't agree with Paxman or Brand that the problem is 'lying'.  Politicians can never be completely open, and nor would we expect them to be, with the pressures they are under.  Though the antics they perform before microphones are occasionally embarrassing and usually irritating.

No, there are three different reasons why Paxman and Brand have a point.

1.  The corrosion of political language.  Most of the political language of choice now was hatched in the 1940s - 'education for all', and so on, even 'social security'.  People don't believe it any more.  It goes in one ear and out the other.  It is a symptom of a deeper dishonesty and a failure to think afresh.  It is enraging because it is so deadening.

2.  The hollowing out of political parties.  The combined membership of all our political parties is smaller than the circulation of a small women's magazine because there is nothing to do, no content, no training beyond electioneering, no careers beyond elections, no thinking, no nothing, except some deference and piles of unwanted leaflets couched often in the most objectionable language.  Why would people join?  What commitment would there be to them as individuals if they did?

3.  There seems no purpose behind it all.  This is why the untruths are so alienating.  'Framing the truth' might be forgivable if it was to some purpose, but modern politics seems so often to be defending indefensible and useless institutions or worn-out ideas, rather than imagining how things might be run more effectively.  It is as if the political class has been drafted in to defend the status quo by creating a complicated charade that gives the impression they are seeking change.

Change those things, break open the consensus, break open the tired old parties and then maybe we might get people to put aside their principles and vote again.

Until that happens, you have to concede that Brand has some element of truth on his side, imperfectly 'framed' perhaps...


Gordon said...

Very unusually I disagree with you because I think you've misread Brand's position.

This is clearly spelt out in a Guardian article (published a week or so after his Newsnight interview).

He says: "As long as the priorities of those in government remain the interests of big business, rather than the people they were elected to serve, the impact of voting is negligible and it is our responsibility to be more active if we want real change."

So, his first point is that government has come to serve big business and not the people. He’s absolutely right about that.

And his proposal to address this? He calls for activism to change things but sees a disconnect between voting and outcomes. Again, I agree with Brand on this.

So his problem with voting is simply that it doesn't work. For Brand - and evidently much of the rest of the population - Parliament may retain formal legal legitimacy but it has lost all moral legitimacy.

Much - probably most - of the country knows this with the apparent exception of those involved in or close to the Westminster Village who are so close to the problem that they can't see it.

Richard T said...

To add to GF's point it seems to me that the cynicism with politics and politicians stems from a sense of being powerless against the big interests in finance and business. People have seen the bankers wreck the economy and yet get away scot free with their bonus structure untouched - indeed the UK government has been intervening to protect the bonuses; look at energy prices and the rest. taking another issue it is clear that many if not all of the regulatory bodies act as a cosy cartel with the interests they are supposed to regulate and supervise. The only interest served is that of whitewash manufacturers whose product they all use in industrial quantities.

Tackle the sense of powerlessness against all the special interests and you might see apathy begin to disappear.

Gordon said...

Richard T gives some good examples of what is wrong; even if we stick just with banking it's clear the moral confusion and compromise runs very deep.

Take HSBC's money laundering activities for example. They have admitted laundering hundreds of millions of dollars for Mexican drug cartels over many years yet paid only a slap-on-the-wrist scale fine with no-one has going to jail. It's subsequently been alleged by whistle blowers that they are back to their old tricks.

(The linked article by Matt Taibbi is also well worth reading).

The politest interpretation one can put on this is that in the US, UK and elsewhere governments are afraid that if they act decisively against criminal behaviour by banks it will bring down the financial system. Well, no. It's a mixture of spivvy finance and outright criminality that has brought down the system - a system let's remember that in its better days was built on trust as exemplified by the City principle: "My word is my bond".

Any economy is built on foundations of trust but our political establishment is undermining these as fast as it can. Almost everyone knows this is wrong even if they don't always articulate it well. We just need a small boy at the back to ask: "Why is the emperor naked" to completely change the political atmosphere.

Suppose for example that the leader of a smaller party that wanted to make a difference were to stick his head above the parapet and call for some serious jail time for the executives involved. Would the Conservatives - nominally the party of law and order - be able stand against this? What would their millions of law-abiding supporters make of it? What would the Russell Brand tendency say?

I'll bet it would cause more of a stir (but in a good way) than sterile sound bites like alarm clock Britain.

David Boyle said...

Thanks so much for such thoughtful responses. You're quite right that I did misread Brand's comments, but all I can say is that my diagnosis of the apparent powerlessness of politicians is not a million miles away from the problem you pose - the assumption that government is carried out on behalf of corporations.