Fergus O'Farrell with a piece on Russell Brand. A different version of this piece featured in College Tribune. The author is an Irish history MA student, researching Cathal Brugha. He can be followed on Twitter under the handle @fergus_farrell.
Russell Brand was known to many of us before his political awakening. The good looking, swarthy comedian has been a familiar figure on television screens and in celebrity magazines over the past decade. He has starred in Hollywood movies, presented reality TV shows and was briefly married to Katy Perry. He has also suffered from drug addiction, made sexually explicit prank phone calls on the veteran actor Andrew Sachs about his granddaughter, and he once brought a homeless drug user to an Ideal Homes exhibition because he thought it would be “amusing”. But things have changed. No longer the prankster, handsome rogue of the tabloids, Russell has re-branded himself as a political activist.
In several television appearances on current affairs programmes in the UK, Brand has laid out his main concerns: the growing inequality in society; the irrevocable damage being done to the environment; some governments’ policy of criminalizing drugs; and the excess power of multinationals in global politics. Last month he published Revolution, in which he points out the problems with the current system and his “vision for a fairer, sexier society that’s fun and inclusive”.
While Brand has correctly identified many of the issues which the world faces in the 21st century, he has little of substance to offer in the way of solutions. He calls for a people’s revolution, where the masses take power back from the elite, the blueprints for which are yet unknown. Not surprisingly, few have taken the plans too seriously. Another tenet of his political philosophy is his “don’t vote” message. He tells us that “voting is pointless”, that nothing ever changes - a message that is misguided, conceited and ignorant.
The ‘Don’t Vote’ Message
Britain has enjoyed the incredibly privileged position of having uninterrupted democracy for centuries. Almost every country in Europe has suffered from the horrors of dictatorship, where millions are denied the right to vote. These days, the right to vote is enshrined in the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but Brand wants you to believe it more beneficial to abandon this right. He says your vote won’t change anything. To see the flaws in his argument, one only has to consider what a win for the Yes campaign in the recent Scottish independence referendum would have meant for the United Kingdom. While the Scottish independence project was ultimately unsuccessful, it is clear that the vote had profound impact on the UK and on the future of the Union. To follow Brand’s advice and sit on the sidelines while major changes were being debated and voted on in the UK would have been a huge missed opportunity for any citizen.
In Ireland, there are plans to hold a referendum in 2015 on lowering the voting age from 18 to 16. There are also signs that the age may be lowered in Britain for General Elections. The fact that the voting age was reduced from 18 to 16 proved to be significant in the recent referendum on Scottish independence. The referendum on same-sex marriage in Ireland, also planned for 2015, could be impacted by a lower voting age. Young people, often more radical and liberal than older voters, are likely to have a huge impact on the referendum on same-sex marriage planned next year. With much of the debate already being driven by Ireland’s young people, no one doubts that a lower voting age would mean greater youth engagement in the topic. Brand’s message to his predominantly young followers belies their intelligence and presupposes their apathy towards politics.
Boasting over 8.5 million followers on Twitter, Brand wields great influence over swathes of young fans. It is admirable that he has used this influence, raising genuine social problems to a huge audience, impressing many with his oratorical skills. He oozes confidence, is at ease in front of a large crowd, and has the rare ability of balancing provocation and eloquence (though some call it verbosity). There is, however, no substance behind his rhetorical flushes. Back in 2008, Barack Obama orations ignited passion, both inside and beyond American borders, with messages of “Hope” and “Change”. Like Obama, Brand possess charisma and charm. But unlike Obama, Brand lacks vision. While many of Obama’s campaign promises have not materialized, one cannot doubt that he, at one time, had a plan. Brand, urging similarly heaving changes, has laid out no roadmap for the future of his voterless Britain.
Carrying his confused and misguided message, Brand claims to be a man of the people - an ordinary, concerned citizen who has been duped by the political elite. Interviewed on Newsnight on October 23, Brand rebuked Evan Davis for using a graph to demonstrate a point: “people like you use graphs to confuse people like us.”
Presumably, the “us” whom Brand refers to isn’t “us, the stupid people, who don’t understand graphs”, but “us, the common people.” Brand is a wealthy celebrity who is driven around by a chauffeur. While it may be true that some of the politicians which Brand criticises are out of touch with the electorate, Brand is certainly out of touch with the masses. He is even worse than a champagne socialist: he’s a celebrity socialist. A regular visitor to the US, Brand’s concerns for the environment seem to be easily forgotten on those trans-Atlantic flights.
Brand should be commended for highlighting many of the problems which the world is facing. However, I doubt his book Revolution will be taken seriously any time soon. His only “solution” - the don’t vote manifesto - ranks among his best jokes to date.