Hardeep Singh Kohli: I want to make people laugh but I want to make them think

Hardeep Singh Kohli'. Picture: submitted
Hardeep Singh Kohli'. Picture: submitted
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The Brexit vote has changed Britain – and not for the better, writes comedian and broadcaster Hardeep Singh Kohli, whose new stand-up show explores his life-long obsession with politics.

It was 24 June 2016. The morning after the night before. I was in Salford, BBC Media City. I was dazed and confused. This wasn’t meant to happen. I should have listened to Ruth. I was working for BBC Radio 4 that week and my then girlfriend had called me the night before as the polls closed.

“I don’t want to be in London on my own when it happens…”

“When what happens?” I asked.

“I have a bad feeling about this referendum….”

Alas, the sinister, slate-stormed skies that delayed and cancelled trains from London to Manchester were but a precursor of the crepuscular chaos and confusion to come. So we spent that night becoming steadily more shocked, stunned and subdued, some two hundred miles apart.

The people had spoken. This, we were told, was democracy in action, the dispossessed, the politically alienated and the all too often overlooked had finally made a stand and sent a message to the political classes and to 48 per cent of the Remain population. Never mind the assurances made to the Scots during our independence referendum 18 months earlier about our EU identity; Scotland voted almost two to one to stay in Europe. But now all bets were off.

This was an attempt at anarchy, the making of a mini-revolution. This was Brexit.

Yet life had to go on. I had to wake up and go to work to record Pick of the Week. (As we all know, the sign of true anarchy and full-scale revolution would be the immediate cancellation of The Archers, a Socialist re-versioning of Moneybox and no more Pick of the Week).

Sleep deprived, altogether unclear about what had just happened and even less informed about where we were heading, I wandered into the newsagents to buy some newspapers; I had to check this wasn’t a Bobby Ewing shower moment. I picked up a clutch of papers and proffered a Scottish £20 note to the Tamil shop assistant. He was clearly new to the job; he examined my money with the age-old suspicion that accompanies almost every Scottish banknote in England.

“Better Together?” I pondered.

He refused to accept my cash. I have to admit that I didn’t handle the situation well.

“So, let’s be clear. England told Scotland that by staying in the Union in 2014 that we would be assured of our place in Europe. And now, here we are, having stayed in the Union and England are leading us out of Europe. And you won’t accept my perfectly acceptable tender?”

My tirade targeted at the Tamil shop assistant was never going to be anything other than a Pyrrhic victory; he had absolutely no idea what I was railing against, why I was so irrationally upset.

Behind me stood a high-vis wearing workie, one of the multitude of builders that populate Media City. He was getting increasingly impatient; understandably so.

I made my final pitch.

“Just take my “British” money…”

The workie snapped.

“Listen mate, either get on with it or f*** off back to your own country.”

There it was. The ink still wet on the ballot papers and the genie was out of the bottle.

“You mean Scotland?”

As if the situation hadn’t been tense enough, the workie didn’t appreciate my answer.

I could see him consider escalating things; luckily all he did was shoulder barge me as he stormed off, swearing and shouting.

For the next few days numerous reports emerged about black and brown Britons and immigrants being confronted with such vitriol and loathing. And while it would be very far from the truth to suggest that all Brexit voters were racist, it is self-evident that all racists voted for Brexit.

And while some Remainers beat their breasts about this seemingly increased and ugly expression of xenophobia and racism, suggesting that these four nations had become forever divided, that too was not an accurate response. It was understandable but inaccurate.

Folk don’t become racist overnight. These hateful opinions, these irrational prejudices had always existed. All that had changed was that their whispers had become shouts. The little Englanders, the protectionists had been vindicated; they had won the war. Their opinions and prejudices had carried Brexit over the line.

And there I was, weeks away from performing my new Edinburgh show, Mixtape: My Life Through Music. How could I stand on stage hour after hour, day after day while this maelstrom raged around me? I emailed my producer and suggested we junk the show and I write a new one, a political show based on these tumultuous events, from the independence referendum and the implosion of Scottish Labour to the rise of the SNP onto the uncharted territory of Brexit.

Luckily he calmed me down and suggested that rather than throw away all my music-based work, he would organise a few extra shows where I could engage in this political discourse.

Much as I may be known for my political engagement and involvement, not many folk knew that since my childhood all I wanted to be was a politician. I wanted to represent the people of Glasgow, make their world a better place, stand up for the downtrodden and deliver social justice. These were the days before Jim Murphy and his flat rental, Sir Peter Viggers’ £1,600 duck house and Iain Duncan Smith’s £39 breakfast expenses. (I’m assuming he had double bacon).

I was shortlisted for the constituency where I grew up in North Glasgow for the 2015 General Election. I found out that one of my oldest friends was also shortlisted so I stood down. He won the seat and represented that constituency.

Almost a hundred years ago American actor and comedian Will Rogers said that “everything is changing. People are taking their comedians seriously and the politicians as a joke.”

It was true then; it is truer still now.

We had a Prime Minister, David Cameron, who called a referendum he didn’t need to call. He thought he would win but he lost. Instead of staying on to sort the mess, he scarpered. He was replaced by a Prime Minister who called a General Election she didn’t need to call. She thought she would win but she lost. Instead of scarpering, she decided to stay on. Hilarious.

And as if that wasn’t enough material to be going on with, Trump happened. He epitomises all that is wrong with politics in the West. We forget that politicians work for us; for too long in safe seats there has been little or no accountability. Where we once had a diverse range of elected representatives, people who had led other lives and brought that experience with them, we now have a political class that have only ever orbited the world of politics, living in a bubble. It’s no wonder the electorate feel alienated.

And here I am, trying to be funny and thoughtful about the state of the world. This is a watershed show for me, a departure from the “man and a mic” approach to comedy. It’s a highly personal take on my lifelong obsession with all things political. I still want to make people laugh but I also want to make them think, to reflect and to consider. That’s a fact; with no alternative.

Hardeep Singh Kohli: Alternative, Fact, is at Saint Luke’s Theatre, Glasgow, 22 March (0844 873 7353, www.glasgowcomedyfestival.com); Falkirk Town Hall, 7 April (01324 506 850, www.falkirkcommunitytrust.org) and Nairn Community Arts Centre, 14 April (01667 453 476, www.nairncc.co.uk).