Russell Brand’s recent interview with Jeremy Paxman caught the headlines because, in this age of cliché, banality and hackneyed political sound-bites, he proposed something genuinely radical.
He proposed, encouraged and forecast a revolution; to overthrow the “political and corporate elites” and replace the existing system with a “socialist, egalitarian system based on the massive redistribution of wealth”.
Because of its radical nature – in a fundamentally moderate political age – most who have seen or heard of the interview have brushed it aside, disregarding the ideas as those of an extremist and someone out of touch with reality.
But to ignore Brand’s comments is to disregard a crucial argument, for there exists a message behind his words much more relevant to British society, much more justified and much more insightful than he has been given due credit for.
It must first be noted that I do not agree with all of what Brand had to say. I certainly do not believe that people should not vote because it “makes no difference”, for I feel that voting can have an impact, and the principle of voting remains an effective and influential way of passing judgement on public officials. Secondly, I strongly feel that revolution is not the answer to our problems, as the violence, chaos and instability it would cause are totally undesirable. Finally, I do not feel that Brand himself made an overly coherent case for what he was recommending, and his style was at times rude and immature, but that should not distract from the important and valid points that he did make.
One issue that Brand did highlight was the undoubted disillusionment many people feel with modern politicians and the political system as a whole. Simply by talking to normal people, it is quite clear that politicians are held in very low regard, and there is certainly widespread apathy towards Westminster within Great Britain at present.
As Brand highlighted, “the lies, treachery (and) deceit of the political class has been going on for generations” and has resulted in “a disenfranchised, disillusioned, despondent underclass not being represented by (the) political system”.
What has been highlighted is that the current crop of British politicians does not effectively represent the British people, and this, in my opinion, is the fundamental problem that needs to be overcome to increase interest and participation in politics.
There are numerous causes of this, which need to be remedied not just to improve the standing of the system in the eyes of the people, but to improve Parliament’s ability to execute its primary function; the representation of the British electorate.
According to a study by The Smith Institute conducted after the previous general election, “a remarkable 34% of MPs went to fee paying private schools; compared with a national average of around 7%”, and over 3% went to a single private school, Eton College.
Although you cannot force an increase in state-educated MPs – it is simply undemocratic and illogical to introduce quotas or provide preferential treatment to state-school pupils – the disproportionate share of parliamentary seats held by those who attended public school has considerable detrimental effects on the representative-represented relationship.
As highlighted by Russell Brand, people are not, and will not, be interested in politics if they cannot connect, in some way, to those who are making the decisions. The general public lose faith in politicians and their desire and ability to help the average man or woman because they do not see how somebody from such a dissimilar background could possibly understand their needs, a feeling exacerbated by policies that seem to be driven by a lack of understanding of normal people’s needs and desires and a disconnection with reality, such as the decision to cut the top rate of tax while slashing the welfare budget.
The fundamental problem with such a disproportionate number of politicians coming from privileged, privately-educated backgrounds – of the 29 members of David Cameron’s first coalition cabinet in 2010, 23 had assets or investments estimated to be worth in excess of £1 million – is two-fold. Firstly, the people making decisions are unable to truly understand what it is like for the people who are affected by the decisions. How can millionaires, who have come from families with great fortunes, possibly comprehend the impact of a policy on a family living on minimum wage and struggling to get by? And secondly, the gap between the governors and the governed simply enhances the feelings of disillusionment and apathy, and these feelings are a problem, not from an idealistic ‘democratic participation’ point of view, but because a lack of interest from the general public will only increase the number of policies that fail to serve the interests of the people they will affect.
A second essential problem is the issue of ‘career politicians’; that is, politicians who go straight, or almost straight, from education, normally University, to the political sector, without doing a ‘normal’ job first. Traditionally, these people go from education straight to working for a political party or an individual as a researcher, and then straight into parliament themselves. A study revealed that over 25% of the candidates who stood for election during the 2010 campaign were ‘career politicians’.
The consequence of this trend is that the people who make the decisions have little, if any, experience in the field they are having a direct impact upon. Michael Gove, for example, the reform-happy Education Secretary, is overhauling many aspects of the education system, but he has had no first-hand experience of the system since his own student days. Between University and politics, his only jobs have been in journalism and the media.
Russell Brand has been laughed aside because of the methods he has proposed in order to solve the problems he has identified. But his radical solutions should not disguise the genuine issues he has acknowledged. There does currently exist a ‘political class’ in Britain, a form of elite that does not understand the lives of normal Britons and that normal people cannot identify with. For the good of the political system and for the benefit of the people affected by it, this needs to change. Russell Brand was not right about everything, but he was right about one thing: the current political system contains fundamental flaws that absolutely need to be remedied if it is going to effectively do its principal job of serving the British people.