Russell Brand, comedian. Credit: Joss McKinley/New Statesman
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The NS Interview: Russell Brand

“The BBC is beautiful, but now we are watching it fall apart”

“The BBC is beautiful, but now we are watching it fall apart”

You write books, do stand-up comedy and act in films. Which do you prefer?
Stand-up. I love writing, but I'm not very disciplined and I find it difficult to do something where the gratification is so obviously delayed. No one's clapping and laughing at a book.

What's going on in your mind onstage?
There is this staccato series of interconnected voices - sometimes it feels like I'm in a seizure of ideas, a collision of voices.

Are there limits to what you will joke about?
I think as long as you remain funny, you can say anything.

You've said you find film-making dull. Why?
The thing with film is that it's disciplined, collaborative and democratic (up to a point) - so it's not really in alignment with the template of pleasure that I've lived in life.

What have you lost in your quest for fame?
The idea that every time you are photographed it's like [losing] a sliver of your soul is a valid metaphysical argument. But, for me, it's meant I've focused on protecting what's truthful to me.

But you expose parts of your life that many people would consider private.
I don't know what they're doing with their time. Stuff about an orgy ten years ago doesn't mean anything to me.

You resigned from the BBC after making phone calls to Andrew Sachs about his granddaughter. Do you regret that now?
I will always have to be careful to acknowledge my part in the mistake that occurred, in terms of conduct and impoliteness. But the subsequent phenomenon was an exercise conducted by the print media, which - no disrespect - are becoming increasingly irrelevant.

In what way?
Look at the Daily Mail the other day - on one page, it had a picture of a cloud that looked like a dog. Admittedly, the cloud did look like a dog. But I thought: "What the hell's going on?" How can you possibly take its opinion on pages one and two seriously when, on page 12, there's this cloud that looks like a dog?

Are you worried about the future of the BBC?
It's a peculiarly beautiful organisation and I recognise that more, working abroad. It's incomparable. But I think we're watching it fall apart now; we're watching it dismantle itself because - I don't want to be critical, especially of the BBC - it seems to lack strong leadership.

Do you vote?
I have become, like a lot of people of our generation, utterly disengaged, utterly disenfranchised. I've never voted in my life.

Why not?
I have no relationship to what they are saying. It's a charade and there is no point identifying with it; it doesn't mean anything. I think what we need is a genuine alternative.

You talk about the need for revolution. What would yours look like?
Legitimate change would have to have a spiritual element. I don't think that you can have socialism without spirituality, so the atheistic tenets of Marxism are a significant reason why it didn't work - not that I'm an economist.

What do you mean by "spirituality"?
An ideological shift to accepting that we are all one. It's present in Hinduism, Christianity, Judaism - love one another and try to politicise these ideas. But as long as people who are at the top of hierarchical structures pursue self-interest, we don't have many options.

You have said you dread being alone. Why?
In Alcoholics Anonymous, it is said: "An addict alone is in bad company." When I was a kid, I was on my own a lot. I quickly retreat into my imagination. That's all well and good if I'm in the right frame of mind and, broadly speaking these days, I am. But before, I could filter myself off into some avenue of madness.

Did you always think you would get married?
No, because it is conventional to be married. I have had all sorts of different solipsistic musings. I sometimes think I should end my dotage with concubines and hundreds of grandchildren. But part of me is quite traditional, really.

It's not the first word that springs to mind.
You stick a few rings and bangles about your person and it makes you incredibly bohemian, but really I'm a guy from Grays in Essex who was brought up by a single mum. I like going to West Ham, going to the cinema and playing with the cat.

Is there anything you'd like to forget?
I don't think so. I wish I could forget the theme tune to the Coco Pops advert . . . But sometimes I'm glad I know it.

Are we all doomed?
No, I don't think so - I think we have hope. But perhaps that's why we are doomed.

Defining Moments

1975 Born in Grays, Essex
1991 Enters the Italia Conti Academy. Is expelled in his first year for drug use
2000 Presents first notable stand-up show at the Hackney Empire, London
2001 Fired from MTV for dressing up as Bin Laden the day after 11 September attacks
2008 Resigns from BBC Radio 2
2008 Wins Best Live Stand-Up at British Comedy Awards
2010 Marries the singer Katy Perry

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 08 November 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Israel divided

Ralph Steadman for the New Statesman.
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Tim Farron: Theresa May is "the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party"

The Liberal Democrat leader on his faith, Blairism and his plan to replace Labour as the opposition. 

This is Tim Farron’s seventh general election. His first was in 1992, when his Tory opponent was a 36-year-old called Ther­esa May. He was just 21 and they were both unsuccessful candidates in the Labour fortress of North-West Durham. He recalls talking “to a bunch of ex-miners who weren’t best pleased to see either of us, some kid Liberal and some Tory”. Now he sees his former and current opponent as “the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party . . . I think it has rendered Ukip almost pointless – she is Ukip now.”

May was elected to parliament in 1997, but it took Farron until 2005 to join her. She leads the dominant Conservatives while he heads a party of only nine Liberal Democrat MPs. Still, their reversal of fortunes gives him hope. “After the 1992 election, every­one said there’s no way for a non-Tory government, and it turned out there was. So let’s not assume it’s a given there’s a Tory government [for ever].”

In April, I accompanied Farron to Manchester Gorton, in the lead-up to a by-election that was cancelled by May’s decision to call a snap election on 8 June. Still, the 46-year-old’s party has been in campaign mode for months; Lib Dems spoke of using last December’s Richmond Park by-election to test their messaging. It clearly had an effect: the incumbent Conservative, Zac Goldsmith, lost to their candidate, Sarah Olney.

Brexit, to which the Liberal Democrats are vehemently opposed, will be a dominant theme of the election. Their party membership has just exceeded 100,000, close to an all-time high, and they have enjoyed much success in council by-elections, with more to come in the local elections of 4 May.

However, any feel-good factor swiftly evaporated when Farron appeared on Channel 4 News on 18 April. He was asked by the co-presenter Cathy Newman whether or not he believes that homosexuality is a sin, a question that he answered obliquely in 2015 by saying that Christianity started with acknowledging that “we’re all sinners”.

This time, he told Newman, he was “not in the position to make theological announcements over the next six weeks . . . as a Liberal, I’m passionate about equality”.

The Channel 4 interview divided opinion. One Liberal politician told me that Farron’s stance was “completely intolerable”. Stephen Pollard, the influential editor of the Jewish Chronicle, described it as
“a very liberal position: he holds certain personal views but does not wish to legislate around them”. Jennie Rigg, the acting chair of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats, said it was “as plain as the nose on my face that Tim Farron is no homophobe”.

Farron declined the chance to clarify his views with us in a follow-up phone call, but told the BBC on 25 April: “I don’t believe that gay sex is a sin,” adding, “On reflection, it makes sense to actually answer this direct question since it’s become an issue.”

For his critics, Farron’s faith and politics are intertwined. He sees it differently, as he told Christian Today in 2015: “. . . the danger is sometimes that as a Christian in politics you think your job is to impose your morality on other people. It absolutely isn’t.”

Tim Farron joined the then Liberal Party at the age of 16 but didn’t become a Christian until he was 18. Between completing his A-levels in Lancashire and going to Newcastle University to read politics, he read the apologetics, a body of Christian writing that provides reasoned arguments for the gospel story. “I came to the conclusion that it was true,” he told me. “It wasn’t just a feel-good story.”

In speeches, Farron now takes on the mannerisms of a preacher, but he had a largely non-religious upbringing in Preston, Lancashire. “I don’t think I’d been to church once other than Christmas or the odd wedding,” he says. “I went once with my dad when I was 11, for all the good that did me.”

When we meet, it is Theresa May’s religion that is in the spotlight. She has condemned the National Trust for scrubbing the word “Easter” from its Easter egg hunt, a row it later emerged had been largely invented by the right-wing press in response to a press release from a religious-themed chocolate company.

“It’s worth observing there’s no mention of chocolate or bunny rabbits in the Bible,” Farron reminds me. “When people get cross about, in inverted commas, ‘us losing our Christian heritage’ they mean things which are safe and comfortable and nostalgic.” He pauses. “But the Christian message at Easter is shocking, actually, and very radical.”

British politics is tolerant of atheists (such as Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg) alongside those who, like David Cameron, are culturally Christian but whose faith is “a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes”. But the reaction to Farron’s equivocation on homosexuality prompted many to wonder if a politician who talks openly about his faith is now seen as alarming. Nebulous wishes of peace and love at Christmas, yes; sincere discussions of the literal truth of the Resurrection? Hmm.

Tim Farron’s beliefs matter because he has a mission: to replace not only Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition but Theresa May in Downing Street. Over lassis at the MyLahore curry house in Manchester, he tells me that Britain is facing two calamities. “One is Brexit, indeed hard Brexit . . . and the other is a Tory government for 25 years. We have to present a genuine, progressive alternative that can not only replace Labour as an opposition, it can replace the Tories as a government.” This is ambitious talk for a party with nine MPs. “I understand the ridicule that will be thrown at me for saying those things: but if you don’t want to run the country, why are you in politics?” He pauses. “That’s a question I would ask most people leading the Labour Party at present.”

What does he think of May, his one-time opponent in North-West Durham? “She strikes me as being very professional, very straightforward, somebody who is very conservative in every sense of the word, in her thought processes, her politics, in her style.” He recalls her 2002 conference speech in which she warned Tory activists: “Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us: the nasty party.”

“In many ways, she was the trailblazer for Cameron in being a softer-focused Tory,” he says. “It now looks like she’s been trapped by the very people she was berating as the nasty party all those years ago. I like to think that isn’t really her. But that means she isn’t really in control of the Conservative Party.”

Voters, however, seem to disagree. In recent polls, support for the Conservatives has hovered between 40 and 50 per cent. Isn’t a progressive alliance the only way to stop her: Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru all working together to beat the Tories?

“Let’s be really blunt,” he says. “Had Jeremy Corbyn stood down for us in Richmond Park [where Labour stood Christian Wolmar], we would not have won. I could have written Zac Goldsmith’s leaflets for you: Corbyn-backed Liberal Democrats.

“I’m a pluralist,” he adds. “But any progressive alliance has got to be at least equal to the sum of its parts. At the moment, it would be less than the sum of its parts. The only way the Tories are losing their majority is us gaining seats in Hazel Grove –” he ticks them off with his fingers, “– in Cheadle, in the West Country and west London. There’s no chance of us gaining those seats if we have a kind of arrangement with the current Labour Party in its current form.”

What about the SNP? “Most sensible people would look at that SNP manifesto and agree with 99 per cent of it,” Farron says. “But it’s that one thing: they want to wreck the country! How can you do a deal with people who want to wreck the country?”

There’s no other alternative, he says. Someone needs to step up and offer “something that can appeal to progressive younger voters, pro-Europeans and, you know, moderate-thinking Middle England”. He wants to champion a market economy, strong public services, action on climate change, internationalism and free trade.

That sounds like Blairism. “I’m a liberal, and I don’t think Blair was a liberal,” he replies. “But I admire Blair because he was somebody who was able to win elections . . . Iraq aside, my criticisms of Blair are what he didn’t do, rather than what he did do.”

Turning around the Tory tide – let alone with just nine MPs, and from third place – is one hell of a job. But Farron takes heart from the Liberal Party in Canada, where Justin Trudeau did just that. “I’m not Trudeau,” he concedes, “He was better-looking, and his dad was prime minister.”

There is a reason for his optimism. “I use the analogy of being in a maze,” he says, “You can’t see a way out of it, for a progressive party to form a majority against the Tories. But in every maze, there is a way out. We just haven’t found it yet.” 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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