So, I recommend a trip to Sri Lanka. Wonderful place. Go now before everyone else does. Being (almost entirely) offline for a couple of weeks is a blessing too. But even good things come to an end.
Which brings me to Russell Brand. Fair play to the New Statesman. Their decision to ask Brand to “edit” an issue has brought them all the publicity they could have hoped for. It would be churlish to begrudge the Staggers that.
Celebrity sells. Or, at least, wins attention. Which is fine. Plenty of people seem quite enthused by Brand. Even if they disagree with his diagnosis of contemporary ills they enjoy the sight of a “professional commentariat” that is supposedly discombobulated by Brand’s invasion of their turf. He is sticking it to the man and that’s more important than the detail of his complaint. Never mind the content, appreciate the pose. Which, again, is fine. But it does not take one very far or towards anywhere or anything that is actually useful.
I dare say Brand thinks he really is speaking for most of us when he writes that:
Like most people I regard politicians as frauds and liars and the current political system as nothing more than a bureaucratic means for furthering the augmentation and advantages of economic elites.
It’s true that many of us have moments when we’re tempted to subscribe to this kind of thinking. Times when we wonder if the world really has gone to the dogs and occasions when we suspect that we’re governed by crooks and knaves and fools. There is, after all, so much to complain about, so much to be enraged by.
Then again, that has always been the case. The world is a messy, complicated, difficult place and there are always solutions that are simple, popular and wrong. Who knew Russell Brand lives below the line?
Even so, it is revealing that Brand believes his grand-parents’ generation “were conned”. Winning the Second World War and ensuring some future for liberal democracy was just another trick. What difference did it really make? Look at us now. We might as well not have bothered.
And yet, despite this, Brand’s article is essentially a call for a cause. I’m not sure, in as much as his piece is comprehensible, it makes much difference what that cause is. Pick one, any one. The importance sometimes lies less in what you fight for than that you fight in the first place. Perhaps that explains his apparent admiration for fundamentalist extremism.
This, it should be said, is hardly a sentiment confined to adolescents or the disaffected left. The heady rush of extremism is intoxicating and the search for a cause never ceases. It is always time to sweep away boring, plodding, bourgeois politics.
But the danger of a cause – of a revolution – is that sometimes you get what you desire. Brand seems to think of himself, albeit in some confused fashion, as some kind of all-shagging, hippy neo-Futurist.
The early twentieth century was a time of Robber Barons too, mind you, and a period in which even some normally-sensible people fretted that bourgeois decency was leaving the peoples of Europe fat and complacent and decadent. A cleansing war might not, all things be considered, be the worst that could happen. Well, they got their war.
More recently – and Brand’s article reminded me of this too – the latter years of the Clinton presidency were marked by the arrival of National Greatness Conservatism. America, wrote David Brooks and Bill Kristol, had lost its purpose. The end of the Cold War – ended, mercifully, in victory – threatened to deprive the United States of its moral purpose. A programme of ambitious national renewal was required to stave off the depressing normalcy of managerial politics. What was needed was a cause.
It arrived, out of the blue New York sky, one September morning. The atrocity was also an opportunity. Not so much an excuse for a new American empire as the arena in which a new generation would make its mark. Heroic Conservatism would refashion the world, leaving it a better, freer, place. This too was, for a while, giddy stuff.
It didn’t quite work out that way.
Brand is entitled to despise the ordinariness of contemporary politics. But if you believe politicians really are just ‘frauds and liars’ then there comes a point at which your contempt for the governing classes must eventually spill into contempt for the people who elect them. Brand salutes apathy. It is, he says, the rational response to our present predicaments. Again, many of us sometimes think this. But we also think that sometimes even doing a little something is the best we can do. We certainly don’t think that the rationally-disengaged are, per Brand, wiser, superior, people to the poor saps and sheep who take part in our rotten democratic (sic!) process.
Voting only encourages politicians, sneers Brand and again, of course, this is a sentiment to which many of us subscribe occasionally. But deep down most of us know that it’s a juvenile sentiment and a pose that, though good enough to win a laugh sometimes, is cheap and lazy. It’s all too easy.
It is certainly easier than actually being a politician. But, in this country at least, most of our elected politicians do the best they can. Some of them will fail and some of those failures will be the result of indolence or stupidity. But most of the time most of them grapple with a job that, though one they asked for, is more difficult than most of us imagine most of the time.
That is to say, the more someone sneers about how stupid and venal and corrupt our MPs are the less likely it is that they know anything about an MP’s actual life and work.
We should certainly weight actions more heavily than motivations but we should not forget those motivations. And most MPs run for office because they think, public-spiritedly, that they have something to offer and because they think they can help nudge the country – and the lives of their constituents – towards a marginally better future. This is not a small thing either.
I don’t suppose Brand has the first idea how MPs – all frauds and liars, remember – actually work. I doubt he cares to find out either. He’s not alone in that. Even journalists and pundits who probably should care more spend less time on the grimy detail of policy and parliamentary scrutiny than we should. We certainly rarely contemplate the value of constituency casework.
But that’s what these frauds and liars spend much of their time upon. The family in dispute with social services. The immigrant appealing against a Home Office decision that he must be deported. The difficulties of picking your way through the benefit maze. The business that is being crippled by the unintended consequences of ancient and outdated regulations, and petitions parliament for help. The parents asking for help in persuading the local authority to keep a school open or the communities asking that something more be done about this or that nuisance that is inconveniencing their lives. None of this interests Russell Brand. But much of this is what most of politics is. Most MPs work harder than most people think.
It’s easy – and if you want to appear on television comedy programmes, essential – to scoff at all this. Easy to just complain that they’re all at it and all just the bloody same anyway so what’s the point of anything? But they’re not and there is a point.
Because liberal democracy, for all its discontents and frustrations, is still better than any of the plausible or previously established alternatives. It is certainly superior to what one imagines Russell Brand’s utopia would look like. Causes have consequences too and many of them, being unforeseen, will be bloody and subsequently matters of great regret.