I WASN’T going to tune into Question Time. I really wasn’t. Pitting Russell Brand against Nigel Farage was blatant televisual click-bait and the embodiment of all that’s wrong with politics.
Who wants to hear complex issues over-simplified or to see cartoon characters biffing each other with verbal clubs? But then I remembered the clash between these self-appointed iconoclasts would be all over Twitter. Everyone would be talking about it. So I took the bait, and I clicked (or, at least, pressed the on-button).
In many ways I was pleased I did.
In all the recent mockery of Brand – his “open-mindedness” on 9/11 conspiracy theories, his aversion to graphs, his tweeting of a journalist’s mobile number – I had forgotten how seductive he can be. His message – that parliamentary democracy is broken – is such a breath of fresh air to those of us sick of Cameron’s anti-welfare, anti-immigration rhetoric, it is tempting to endorse it without questioning whether his revolution – essentially the dismantling of capitalism and the establishment of small collectives – is either doable or desirable.
Equally, Brand’s detractors can shout “Parklife” at him all they like, but his calling Farage “a Poundshop Enoch Powell” – a phrase trending within minutes – is an example of the flashes of brilliance that make him such a dangerously effective demagogue. He may pout and preen and toss his locks in self-indulgent manner but he knows what his nine million followers are after and is more than capable of delivering it. They want a revolutionary for the celebrity-obsessed Y-Generation – an X-Factor Che Guevara if you like – whose ideology is little more than a series of patched-together platitudes and who preaches rebellion from the heart of the entertainment industry; just as Farage – ex-public schoolboy, ex-banker – paints himself as the ultimate outsider and berates immigrants before going home to his German wife.
Indeed, the most interesting aspect of the much-hyped QT encounter was the way it brought the similarities between Brand and Farage into focus.
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Both anti-establishment, both rabble-rousers, both lacking any concern for the consequences of their rhetoric, they are in fact mirror images of each other. In everything from their inconsistencies, their disdain for detail, their habit of shooting from the hip, they seem to come from the same mould. As they derided Punch and Judy politics while lobbing personal insults, as they traded on people’s disaffection, they had more in common with one another than with any of the mainstream politicians or newspaper columnists around the QT table.
Brand and Farage have successfully tapped into seams of cultural unease. Farage has recognised a fear of uncontrolled immigration and exploited it until some people believe the problem is too many Eastern Europeans and not underinvestment in public services. It doesn’t appear to matter he’s a parody of himself, blaming foreigners for everything from unemployment to traffic jams. When he says something spurious about immigrants being a drain on the NHS, you know someone in the audience will be nodding along as if he’s uncovered some great new truth as opposed to spouting unsubstantiated twaddle. This is infectious. Last week one QT audience member said Canterbury Prison was overrun with immigrants, even though it closed in 2013. And Tory politicians are now trying to out-Ukip Ukip in a misguided attempt to counter the threat it poses.
Brand is less loathsome in as much as the targets of his anger are the powerful rather than the dispossessed. If I am going to be emotionally manipulated into hating a group of people, I’d rather it was bankers on the basis of their bonuses than incomers on the basis of their otherness. And at least his anger is based on something real – the widening gap between the rich and poor – as opposed to the illusion that people seeking nothing but a better future are bleeding us dry.
Some of Brand’s ideas – the redistribution of wealth and the closing of tax loopholes – are admirable, though inadequately explained. Yet when it comes down to it, Brand is no less irresponsible; he tells young people it’s pointless to vote, but offers no real viable alternative. And what will happen to the dissatisfaction he is stoking, if there’s nothing constructive to direct it towards? I think we already know the answer to that.
Of course, Brand could play an active role in changing the world; he could become an elected representative with a mandate to do something radical, but he hasn’t the stamina for that. Urged to stand by a QT audience member, Brand said he was too scared he’d become “one of them”. But sitting on the sidelines sniping is a cop-out. Farage is prepared to embrace the system, but only so he can dismantle it from within. Or at the very least get the UK out of Europe.
Watching this pair of loose cannons – so populist, so unfocused – has renewed my respect for mainstream politicians with the staying power to come up with a coherent set of policies, and for the concept of public service. Yes, Brand’s contempt for the status quo is as attractive to me as I guess Farage’s is to some of those on the Right. Even so, having watched last week’s Question Time, I’ll take sober debate over demagoguery every time. I’d rather try to fix our broken democracy – and get young people into the polling booths – than surrender it to blowhards with a Messiah complex and a love of the limelight.«
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