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Mark Thomas: "My career is built out of the smell of burned bridges"

The comedian and activist on his new show and walking the "wall" between Israel and the West Bank.

The comedian and activist Mark Thomas has campaigned against the arms trade, tried to write a manifesto for a people's revolution and once wrote a column in the New Statesman joking that a bounty should be put on George Bush's head. His latest venture, "Extreme Rambling: Walking the Wall", involved spending eight weeks following the route of the "separation barrier" that divides Israel and the West Bank.

He describes it as "the story of 300,000 settlers, a 750km wall, six arrests, one stoning, too much houmous and a simple question . . . Can you ever get away from it all with a good walk?"

I attended one of the early shows in the run and thought NS readers might like to catch up with what Mark is doing now, so I collared him for a chat . . .

What was the most memorable thing about walking the wall?

Walking in Hebron was a very personal thing. There were about four of us and we got to the top of this hill. There's virtually nothing there. There is a wall, there are four houses. And two kids come out of the house.

They say "Shalom" and nip back into the house. The mum comes out and says: "Have you had breakfast?" We say: "That's very kind of you," so she comes out with this massive kettle of tea -- with all the little glasses.

Five minutes later, we are just finishing the tea when she comes out with home-made bread, home-made sheep's milk yoghurt, home-made sheep's milk butter, home-grown tomatoes and cucumbers and home-cured olives.

I sat there and thought: "I am never going to experience this again in my life -- this level of ingrained hospitality to strangers." It was so beautiful -- I don't want to sound this romantic but it was amazing.

What was most eye-opening about the experience?

Bureaucracy. If you are Palestinian, you aren't given building permits. In 2008, 128 were given to a population of a quarter of a million.

That means when your family gets bigger -- your son or daughter gets married and starts having children, for example -- you can't build extensions to your home. Just 13 per cent of land in East Jerusalem is zoned for Palestinians. On top of that, you have to get permission, which you won't get. So Palestinians have to build illegally.

The [Israeli] settlers find out about this, they get court orders to shut down the rooms that have been added and then they try to gain entrance to occupy the rooms. This happens house by house, lot by lot.

Is it a depressing place to be?

What was brilliant was the number of Palestinians who talked about, and were committed to, non-violent resistance.

There were people from the "Stop the Wall" campaign, organisers from Jordan Valley, people who do tree planting and the Christians who issued the Kairos Palestine document, which is an answer to the people who say, "God gave us the land." When the Christians get it right, they do it really well!

And you have the Combatants for Peace: remarkable people who make these personal journeys of overcoming their fears and seeing through the prejudice.

What is interesting is that everyone is talking about non-violent resistance but there is not one of them who, at some point, will not have felt the rage that says, "Do unto them as they have done unto us." And that's completely natural.

What about on a broader scale?

Nationally, the politics is fucked; the national politicians are fucked. But the community leaders are astounding. Seeing those things gives you hope.

Tell me about your experiences at the refugee camp in Jenin.

There's this place called Freedom Theatre. I went in to see people studying drama. There are three women studying drama in a refugee camp -- they are the most erudite and lucid women.

One of them was called a slag because she does the drama course -- and some people put around leaflets saying she was a tart. Her family walked her in to the theatre to do the drama degree, physically fighting the people who were putting out the leaflets. It sounds awful but I thought it was fucking great. Someone fighting to let their daughter do drama!

One guy told me that suicide bombing was an option for him. He thought that it was a very noble thing to defend your community, until he discovered drama and thought it was this brilliant, brilliant thing. It presses all my buttons. This isn't flag-waving theatre, either: this is proper theatre. Its first production was Animal Farm. The Palestinian National Authority went fucking nuts and someone tried to firebomb the theatre.

Do you think that a lot of people have withdrawn from the debate about the West Bank and Gaza because it's such a heated one?

We can't make this a taboo issue. This is one of the global moral issues of our age. Burma is another one.

Have you mellowed as you got older?

Yes, I think I might have.

Did becoming a father make you more or less angry?

I do care what people think but I don't care as much. I'm very happy doing what I want to do and I don't have to care about fashion or fads.

I like the complexity of things. On the Palestinian side, for example, the gang masters are fucking evil pigs. They need to be condemned. You have to be critically engaged.

Of all the campaigns you've worked on, which was your favourite?

The Ilisu dam campaign. It was about the British government's financial support of dam-building in the Kurdish region of Turkey. Seventy-eight thousand people were going to be displaced in a recovering war zone. It had an evil vibe around it.

The people we were working with were wonderful; campaigners such as Nick Hildyard from the Cornerhouse. He said the first thing we need to do is go out into the Kurdish region and find out what they want us to do. There is no point working in solidarity unless it really is in solidarity. So we went there and what they said was: "We want you to attack the finances." We spent three years doing it and we stopped the dam being built.

I liked the fake PR company you ran, teaching arms dealers to overhaul their image.

That was funny because we used to stay in the hotel with all the old arms leaders. We'd get up and have breakfast with them and they'd be drunk. It was a credible admission of the use of UK equipment in East Timor and that was very important.

Do you vote?

Yes.

Is there a plan?

For me? For my career? Oh, fuck no. No, no, no, no, no. I'm rather proud that my career is built out of the smell of burned bridges. I have pissed off so many people. Me and Channel 4, we hold each other in mutual antipathy, if it ever crosses our minds to think about each other.

Is there anything you regret?

Masses of stuff. As a younger performer, I was very eager to get on. It meant that I was brusque in my relationships with people when I shouldn't have been. I should have taken my time. And there are things we did for telly that I regret. We probably should have stopped a series earlier than we did.

Are you compromising less now?

The way we funded this [touring show about the West Bank] was quite nice. I used the book money. You can get the finance by doing various bits and pieces. You don't have to go through the traditional routes. It certainly makes you feel happier. It doesn't make me feel like I've used someone, which is something you do feel in television, sometimes. It's a horrible feeling.

Are we all doomed?

No. If we look at the past century, we've got a fair chance of sorting something out.

"Extreme Rambling" is on tour -- full gig listings are available here. The book of the tour is published on 7 April 2011 by Ebury Press. You can pre-order it here.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

Photo: ANDREW TESTA/THE NEW YORK TIMES/ EYEVINE
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Interview: Nicola Sturgeon's Scottish referendum dilemma

In a candid interview, the First Minister discusses Theresa May’s coldness, Brexit and tax rises – and why she doesn't know when a second referendum will be held. 

Nicola Sturgeon – along with her aides, who I gather weren’t given much choice – has taken up jogging in the verdant country­side that lies to the east of the Scottish Parliament. “The first time was last week,” she says, when we meet in her large, bright Holyrood office. “Loads of people were out running, which made me a bit self-conscious. But it was fine for ages because everybody’s so focused. Then, suddenly, what must have been a running group came towards me. I saw one of them look and as they ran past I turned round and all of them were looking.” She winces. “I will eventually get to the point where I can run for more than 100 yards at a time, but I’m not at the stage yet where I can go very far. So I’m thinking, God, they’re going to see me stop. I don’t know if I can do this.”

This is a very Nicola Sturgeon story – a touch of the ordinary amid the extraordinary. She may have been a frontbencher for almost two decades, a cabinet minister for half of that and the First Minister since 2014, but she retains that particularly Scottish trait of wry self-mockery. She is also exceptionally steely, evident in her willed transformation over her adult life from a shy, awkward party member to the charismatic leader sitting in front of me. Don’t be surprised if she is doing competitive ten-kilometre runs before the year is out.

I arrived at the parliament wondering what frame of mind the First Minister would be in. The past year has not been especially kind to her or the SNP. While the party is still Scotland’s most popular by a significant margin, and Sturgeon continues to be its dominant politician, the warning lights are flashing. In the 2015 general election, the SNP went from six seats out of 59 to 56, a remarkable result. However, in Theresa May’s snap election in June this year, it lost 21 of those seats (including those of Angus Robertson, the SNP leader at Westminster, and Alex Salmond), as well as half a million votes. Much of the blame has been placed on Sturgeon and her call for a second independence referendum following the vote for Brexit. For critics, it confirmed a suspicion that the SNP only cares about one thing and will manipulate any situation to that end. Her decision also seemed a little rushed and desperate, the act of a woman all too aware of the clock ticking.

But if I expect Sturgeon to be on the defensive, maybe even a little downbeat, I’m wrong. Having just come from a feisty session of First Minister’s Questions, where she had the usual barney with her Tory opposite number, Ruth Davidson, she is impressively candid. “When you come out [of FMQs], your adrenaline levels are through the roof,” she says, waggling a fist in my direction. “It’s never a good idea to come straight out and do an interview, for example.” Adrenalised or not, for the next hour, she is thoughtful, frank, funny and perhaps even a little bitchy.

Sturgeon’s office is on the fourth floor, looking out over – and down on – Holyrood Palace, the Queen’s official residence in Edinburgh. As we talk, a large artistic rendering of a saltire adorns the wall behind her. She is similarly in blue and white, and there are books about Burns on the shelves. This is an SNP first minister’s office.

She tells me that she and her husband, Peter Murrell, the party’s chief executive, took a summer break in Portugal, where his parents have a share in an apartment. “We came home and Peter went back to work and I spent a week at home, just basically doing housework…” I raise an eyebrow and an aide, sitting nearby, snorts. She catches herself. “Not really… I periodically – and by periodically I mean once a year or once every two years – decide I’m going to dust and hoover and things like that. So I did that for a morning. It’s quite therapeutic when you get into it. And then I spent a week at home, reading and chilling out.”

In a recent Guardian interview, Martin Amis had a dig at Jeremy Corbyn for having “no autodidact streak”. Amis said: “I mean, is he a reader?… It does matter if leaders have some sort of backing.” One of Sturgeon’s great strengths is that she is a committed bibliophile. She consumes books, especially novels, at a tremendous rate and raves to me about Gabriel Tallent’s astonishing debut, My Absolute Darling, as well as Bernard MacLaverty’s Midwinter Break. She has just ploughed through Paul Auster’s daunting, 880-page 4 3 2 1 (“It was OK. I don’t think it should be on the Booker shortlist.”) She also reread the works of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie before interviewing her onstage at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in August.

The First Minister is now reading What Happened, Hillary Clinton’s book about her defeat by Donald Trump. “I’ve never been able to read any of her [previous] books because literally every word is focus-grouped to the nth degree,” Sturgeon says. “This one, there are moments of frankness and raw honesty and passages where it’s victimhood and self-pity, but that’s kind of understandable and very human. The thing that fascinates me about Hillary, apart from the politics, is just her sheer bloody resilience.  Given what she’s gone through and everything that’s been chucked at her, I genuinely don’t know how she keeps coming back.”

***

Speaking of resilience, does she have any fellow feeling for Theresa May, humiliated by the electorate and, for now, kept in No 10 like a racoon in a trap by colleagues who are both power-hungry and biding their time? “At a human level, of course,” she says. “When you’ve got an insight into how rough and tough and, at times, downright unpleasant the trade of politics can be, it’s hard not to feel some personal sympathy. Her position must be pretty intolerable. It’s tempered, though, by the fact that nobody made her call an election and she did it for purely party-political interest.”

How does she get on with May – who is formal and restrained, even off-camera – in their semi-regular meetings? Sturgeon starts laughing. “The Theresa May that the country ended up seeing in the election was the one I’ve been dealing with for however long she’s been Prime Minister. This is a woman who sits in meetings where it’s just the two of you and reads from a script. I found it very frustrating because David Cameron, whose politics and mine are very far apart, always managed to have a personal rapport. You could sit with David and have a fairly frank discussion, agree the things you could agree on and accept you disagree on everything else, and have a bit of banter as well.

“I remember just after May came back from America [in January], when she’d held Trump’s hand [Sturgeon starts laughing again], she’d also been to Turkey and somewhere else. This was the Monday morning. We sit down, it’s literally just the two of us, and I say, ‘You must be knackered.’ She said, ‘No! I’m fine!’ And it was as if I’d insulted her. It was just impossible to get any human connection.”

Given this, and the weaknesses exposed during the election, Sturgeon is scathing about how the Conservatives fought the campaign, putting May’s character and competence front and centre. “The people around her must have known that vulnerability,” she says. “God, we all make mistakes and we all miscalculate things, so this is not me sitting on high, passing judgement on others, but don’t build a campaign entirely around your own personality when you know your personality’s not capable of carrying a campaign… Even if you can’t see that yourself, somebody somewhere around you should have.”

Sturgeon might not be in May’s beleaguered position but she has problems. Her demand in March, at a press conference at Bute House, Edinburgh, for a second independence referendum by spring 2019 was a serious mistake and it has left a dent in what had seemed her impermeable personal popularity. Polls show support for the SNP and independence now share a similar downward trajectory. Over the next three years, the First Minister must persuade a sceptical electorate that her party deserves a fourth consecutive term in government.

Does she regret demanding another vote on separation?

Here she gets as close as she will go to a mea culpa. “Obviously I’m thinking pretty deeply about it. I think Brexit is a complete and utter car crash – an unfolding disaster. I haven’t changed my views on that, and I think it’s deeply wrong for [Scotland] to be taken down that path without the ability to decide whether that’s right or not.

“I recognise, as well – and it’s obviously something I have reflected on – that understandably people feel very uncertain about everything just now, partly because the past few years have been one big decision after another. That’s why I said before recess that I will not consider any further the question of a second referendum at this stage. I’m saying, OK, people are not ready to decide we will do that, so we have to come back when things are clearer and decide whether we want to do it and in what timescale.”

Will she attempt to hold a second referendum? Could it be off?

“The honest answer to that is: I don’t know,” she says. Her expression of doubt is revealing.

Would she, however, support a second EU referendum, perhaps on the final separation package? “I think it probably gets more and more difficult to resist it,” she tells me. “I know people try to draw lots of analogies [between the EU and independence referendums], and there are some, but whatever you thought of the [Scottish] white paper, it was there and it was a fairly detailed proposition.

“One of the beautiful things about the independence referendum was the extent to which ordinary folk became experts on really technical, big, macro­economic positions. Standing on a street corner on a Friday morning, an ordinary working-class elderly gentleman was talking to me in great detail about lender of last resort and how that would work. You can say the white paper was crap, or whatever, but it was there, people were informed and they knew what they were voting for.

“That was not the case in the EU referendum. People did not know what they were voting for. There was no proposition put forward by anyone that could then be tested and that they could be held to account on. The very fact we have no idea what the final outcome might look like suggests there is a case for a second referendum that I think there wasn’t in 2014. It may become very hard to resist.”

Sturgeon hasn’t found the Brexit process “particularly easy”, especially when the government at Westminster is in the grip of what is becoming an increasingly vicious succession battle. The SNP administration has repeatedly clashed with the relevant ministers at Westminster, whom it says have given little care to Scotland’s particular needs. Sturgeon’s view of David Davis, Liam Fox and Boris Johnson is not rosy.

“Probably not a day goes by where I don’t look at them and think, ‘What the hell’s going on?’” she says. “That’s not meant as a personal comment on their abilities – although [with] some of them I would have personal question marks over their abilities. But they’re completely paralysed, and the election has left them in a position where you’ve got a Prime Minister who has no control over the direction of her government, and you have other senior ministers who are prepared to keep her there only because it’s in their short-term interests to do it. If you’re sitting on the European side of the table now, how can you have a negotiation with a government where you don’t actually know what their position is, or whether the position you’re being told across the table is one that can carry support back at home? It’s a shambles and it’s increasingly going to be the case that nothing other than Brexit gets any bandwidth at all. It’s really, really not in the interests of the country as a whole.”

***

This is an accusation that is directed at the SNP, too – that the national interest takes second place to its constitutional imperative. It is undoubtedly something that Sturgeon considered over the summer as she sought to rebalance her administration. As a result, the programme for government unveiled earlier this month was impressively long-term in places: for example, its promise to create a Scottish national investment bank, the setting of some ambitious goals on climate change and the commitment to fund research into a basic income.

Most striking, however, was Sturgeon’s decision to “open a discussion about… responsible and progressive use of our tax powers”. With the Scotland Act 2016, Westminster passed control over income tax to Holyrood, and Sturgeon intends to use this new power.

“For ten years,” she says, “we have done a pretty good job of protecting public services as best we can in a period of austerity, while keeping the taxes that we’ve been responsible for low. We’re now at a stage where austerity’s continued, we’re going to have economic consequences from Brexit, we all want good public services, we want the NHS to continue to have strong investment, we want our public-sector workers to be paid more, we want businesses to have the right infrastructure. How do we progressively and responsibly, with the interests of the economy taken strongly, fund our public services going forward? Most people would think right now that there is a case for those with the broadest shoulders paying a little bit more.”

I wonder whether the success of Jeremy Corbyn has influenced her thinking – many expect that a revival of Scottish Labour would force the SNP to veer left (it will also be interesting to see how Westminster reacts to Scotland raising the top rate of income tax). “It’s not particularly Corbyn that’s made me think that,” she insists, a little unconvincingly.

Isn’t Sturgeon concerned that making Scotland the highest-taxed part of the UK could undermine its competitiveness, its attraction as a place to live and as a destination for inward investment? “We should never be in a position where we don’t factor that kind of thing into our thinking, but you talk to businesses, and tax – yes, it’s important, but in terms of attracting investment to Scotland, the quality of your infrastructure matters. Businesses want good public services as well, so it’s the whole package that determines whether Scotland is an attractive place to live and invest in and work in,” she tells me. “It’s seeing it in the round. The competitiveness of your tax arrangements are part of what makes you attractive or not, but it’s not the only part.”

As for the immediate future, she is upbeat. She believes that Ruth Davidson, her main rival, is overrated. “I think Ruth, for all the many strengths people think she might have, often doesn’t do her homework very well,” she tells me. “From time to time, Ruth slips up on that… Quite a bit, actually. I know what I want to do over the next few years, and I’m in a very good place and feeling really up for it. After ten years in office, it’s inevitable you become a victim of your own success. What’s more remarkable is that, after ten years, the SNP still polls at least 10 and usually 10-15 points ahead of our nearest rivals.”

Author's note: Shortly after this interview went to print, the SNP got in touch to say that Nicola Sturgeon’s comment, ‘the honest answer to that is: I don’t know’, was about the timescale of the next independence referendum and not whether there would be one. The misinterpretation was mine.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland).