Dear Russell, choosing to vote is the most British kind of revolution there is

Robert Webb tells Russell Brand: your New Statesman essay has made me rejoin the Labour party.

Dear Russell,

Hi. We’ve met about twice, so I should probably reintroduce myself: I’m the other one from Peep Show. I read your thing on revolution in these pages with great interest and some concern. My first reaction was to rejoin the Labour Party. The Jiffy bag containing the plastic membership card and the Tristram Hunt action figure is, I am assured, in the post. I just wanted to tell you why I did that because I thought you might want to hear from someone who a) really likes your work, b) takes you seriously as a thoughtful person and c) thinks you’re wilfully talking through your arse about something very important.

It’s about influence and engagement. You have a theoretical 7.1 million (mostly young) followers on Twitter. They will have their own opinions about everything and I have no intention of patronising them. But what I will say is that when I was 15, if Stephen Fry had advised me to trim my eyebrows with a Flymo, I would have given it serious consideration. I don’t think it’s your job to tell young people that they should engage with the political process. But I do think that when you end a piece about politics with the injunction “I will never vote and I don’t think you should either”, then you’re actively telling a lot of people that engagement with our democracy is a bad idea. That just gives politicians the green light to neglect the concerns of young people because they’ve been relieved of the responsibility of courting their vote.

Why do pensioners (many of whom are not poor old grannies huddled round a kerosene lamp for warmth but bloated ex-hippie baby boomers who did very well out of the Thatcher/Lawson years) get so much attention from politicians? Because they vote.

Many of the young, the poor, the people you write about are in desperate need of support. The last Labour government didn’t do enough and bitterly disappointed many voters. But, at the risk of losing your attention, on the whole they helped. Opening Sure Start centres, introducing and raising the minimum wage, making museums free, guaranteeing nursery places, blah blah blah: nobody is going to write a folk song about this stuff and I’m aware of the basic absurdity of what I’m trying to achieve here, like getting Liberace to give a shit about the Working Tax Credit, but these policies among many others changed the real lives of millions of real people for the better.

This is exactly what the present coalition is in the business of tearing to pieces. They are not interested in helping unlucky people – they want to scapegoat and punish them. You specifically object to George Osborne’s challenge to the EU’s proposed cap on bankers’ bonuses. Labour simply wouldn’t be doing that right now. They are not all the same. “They’re all the same” is what reactionaries love to hear. It leaves the status quo serenely untroubled, it cedes the floor to the easy answers of Ukip and the Daily Mail. No, if you want to be a nuisance to the people whom you most detest in public life, vote. And vote Labour.

You talk of “obediently X-ing a little box”. Is that really how it feels to you? Obedience? There’s a lot that people interested in shaping their society can do in between elections – you describe yourself as an activist, among other things – but election day is when we really are the masters. We give them another chance or we tell them to get another job. If I thought I worked for David Cameron rather than the other way round, I don’t know how I’d get out of bed in the morning.

Maybe it’s this timidity in you that leads you into another mistake: the idea that revolution is un-British. Actually, in the modern era, the English invented it, when we publicly decapitated Charles I in 1649. We got our revolution out of the way long before the French and the Americans. The monarchy was restored but the sovereignty of our parliament, made up of and elected by a slowly widening constituency of the people, has never been seriously challenged since then. Aha! Until now, you say! By those pesky, corporate, global, military-industrial conglomerate bastards! Well, yes. So national parliaments and supernational organisations such as the EU need more legitimacy. That’s more votes, not fewer.

You’re a wonderful talker but on the page you sometimes let your style get ahead of what you actually think. In putting the words “aesthetically” and “disruption” in the same sentence, you come perilously close to saying that violence can be beautiful. Do keep an eye on that. Ambiguity around ambiguity is forgivable in an unpublished poet and expected of an arts student on the pull: for a professional comedian demoting himself to the role of “thinker”, with stadiums full of young people hanging on his every word, it won’t really do.

What were the chances, in the course of human history, that you and I should be born into an advanced liberal democracy? That we don’t die aged 27 because we can’t eat because nobody has invented fluoride toothpaste? That we can say what we like, read what we like, love whom we want; that nobody is going to kick the door down in the middle of the night and take us or our children away to be tortured? The odds were vanishingly small. Do I wake up every day and thank God that I live in 21st-century Britain? Of course not. But from time to time I recognise it as an unfathomable privilege. On Remembrance Sunday, for a start. And again when I read an intelligent fellow citizen ready to toss away the hard-won liberties of his brothers and sisters because he’s bored.

I understand your ache for the luminous, for a connection beyond yourself. Russell, we all feel like that. Some find it in music or literature, some in the wonders of science and others in religion. But it isn’t available any more in revolution. We tried that again and again, and we know that it ends in death camps, gulags, repression and murder. In brief, and I say this with the greatest respect, please read some fucking Orwell.

Good luck finding whatever it is you’re looking for and while you do, may your God go with you.

Rob

 

Robert Webb to Russell Brand: "The young are in desperate need of support". Photo: Getty

Robert Webb is a comedian, actor and writer. Alongside David Mitchell, he is one half of the double act Mitchell and Webb, best known for award-winning sitcom Peep Show.

This article first appeared in the 30 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Should you bother to vote?

Getty
Show Hide image

What Charles Windsor’s garden reveals about the future of the British monarchy

As an open-minded republican, two things struck me. 

First we are told that the Chancellor, Philip Hammond, has lost his battle for a “soft” Brexit. In a joint article, he and the International Trade Secretary, Liam Fox, the hardest of the ministerial Brexiteers, seem to agree that the UK will leave the European customs union in 2019. Then we get a reverse ferret. Hammond will go for a softish Brexit, after all. A government paper states that the UK will seek a “temporary customs union” in the “transition period” that, it hopes, will follow Brexit.

All this is a taste of things to come. We shall see many more instances of hard and soft Brexiteers celebrating victory or shrieking about betrayal. We shall also see UK and EU leaders storming out of talks, only to return to negotiations a few days later. My advice is to ignore it all until Friday 29 March 2019, when UK and EU leaders will emerge from all-night talks to announce a final, impenetrable fudge.

Lessons not learned

What you should not ignore is the scandal over Learndirect, the country’s largest adult training and apprenticeships provider. An Ofsted report states that a third of its apprentices receive none of the off-the-job training required. In a random sample, it found no evidence of learning plans.

Labour started Learndirect in 2000 as a charitable trust controlled by the Department for Education. It was sold to the private equity arm of Lloyds Bank in 2011 but remains largely reliant on public money (£158m in 2016-17). Since privatisation, 84 per cent of its cash has gone on management fees, interest payments and shareholder dividends. It spent £504,000 on sponsoring the Marussia Formula One team in an attempt to reach “our core customer group… in a new and exciting way”. The apprentices’ success rate fell from 67.5 per cent before privatisation to 57.8 per cent now.

This episode tells us that, however the Brexit process is going, Britain’s problems remain unchanged. Too many services are in the hands of greedy, incompetent private firms, and we are no closer to developing a skilled workforce. We only know about Learndirect’s failure because the company’s attempt to prevent Ofsted publishing its report was, after ten weeks of legal wrangling, overthrown in the courts.

A lot of hot air

Immediately after the Paris climate change accord in 2015, I expressed doubts about how each country’s emissions could be monitored and targets enforced. Now a BBC Radio 4 investigation finds that climate-warming gases emitted into the atmosphere far exceed those declared under the agreement. For example, declarations of methane emissions from livestock in India are subject to 50 per cent uncertainty, and those in Russia to 30-40 per cent uncertainty. One region in northern Italy, according to Swiss scientists, emits at least six times more climate-warming gases than are officially admitted. Remember this when you next hear politicians proclaiming that, after long and arduous negotiations, they have achieved a great victory.

Come rain or come shine

Climate change, scientists insist, is not the same thing as changes in the weather but writing about it brings me naturally to Britain’s wet August and newspaper articles headlined “Whatever happened to the sunny Augusts of our childhood?” and so on. The Daily Mail had one in which the writer recalled not a “single rainy day” from his family holidays in Folkestone. This, as he explained, is the result of what psychologists call “fading affect bias”, which causes our brains to hold positive memories longer than negative ones.

My brain is apparently atypical. I recall constant frustration as attempts to watch or play cricket were interrupted by rain. I remember sheltering indoors on family holidays with card games and books. My life, it seems, began, along with sunshine, when I left home for university at 18. Do psychologists have a name for my condition?

High and dry

Being an open-minded republican, I bought my wife, a keen gardener, an escorted tour of the gardens at Highgrove, the private residence of the man I call Charles Windsor, for her birthday. We went there this month during a break in the Cotswolds. The gardens are in parts too fussy, rather like its owner, but they are varied, colourful and hugely enjoyable. Two things struck me. First, the gardens of the elite were once designed to showcase the owner’s wealth and status, with the eye drawn to the grandeur of the mansion. Highgrove’s garden is designed for privacy, with many features intended to protect royalty from the prying public and particularly the press photographers’ long lenses. Second, our guide, pointing out what the owner had planted and designed, referred throughout to “His Royal Highness”, never “Charles”. I am pondering what these observations mean for the monarchy and its future.

Sympathy for the devil

Before leaving for the Cotswolds, we went to the Almeida Theatre in north London to see Ink, featuring Rupert Murdoch’s relaunch of the Sun in 1969. Many accounts of Murdoch  portray him as a power-crazed monster and his tabloid hacks as amoral reptiles. Ink is far more nuanced. It shows Murdoch as a mixture of diffidence, charm and menace, in love with newspapers and determined to blow apart a complacent,
paternalistic British establishment.

You may think that he and the Sun had a permanently coarsening effect on public life and culture, and I would largely agree. But he was also, in his own way, a 1960s figure and his Sun, with its demonic energy, was as typical a product of that decade as the Beatles’ songs. The play strengthened my hunch that its author, James Graham, who also wrote This House, set in the parliamentary whips’ offices during the 1970s, will eventually be ranked as the century’s first great playwright.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear