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True bromance: David Walliams interviews Russell Brand

Russell Brand doesn’t read the papers, now that he’s in them – but that doesn’t stop him having opinions on everything from the meaning of Britishness to the “spirituality” of socialism. David Walliams tries to keep up.

I hated Russell Brand when I first met him. Exactly a decade ago, we were both cast in a BBC comedy drama entitled Cruise of the Gods. Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon were the stars and I was beyond thrilled to be working with them. We were filming on-board a cruise ship and one day this hairy idiot arrived. Russell only had a minor role but he was taking drugs, trying to get off with the teenage daughters of passengers on the ship and worst of all talking bollocks. He was sacked. I never thought I would see him again, then there he was in my yoga class, sober, happier, and we became friends. Soon after, we both became very well known and we have stayed close. I love him now. So when David Miliband asked me who I would like to interview, I thought of Russell. I thought it would be easy – he has so much to say that I would barely have to ask any questions. I was right. Although David might be disappointed to know that Russell doesn’t know who he is:

Russell Brand He’s the leader of the Labour Party through this period of opposition . . .
David Walliams No, that’s Ed Miliband.

To me, Russell has become a national icon. Wildly famous, he has taken his place alongside British fictional characters, rather than real ones. He is a cross between the Artful Dodger and Harry Flashman.

First, I was interested in what he thinks it means to be British in this year of celebration, royal, sporting and cultural (the James Bond films are 50 years old this autumn):

RB Because I live mostly abroad, I feel especially British. I think patriotism flourishes in opposition. When I’m spending a lot of time in Los Angeles, I consider myself countercultural; I don’t think of myself as an establishment figure. But over here, if I see an image of Her Majesty the Queen, I wince with national pride.
DW When do you see such an image?
RB I’ve had her tattooed on my inner thigh. And I spend quite a lot of time staring at that.
DW Patriotism, jingoism, being proud of your country – it’s a complex area isn’t it? You are a football fan, so do you wave a flag at a match?
RB Philosophically, I think tribalism leads to adversity and is very dangerous and leads to prejudice – but I can’t help it.
DW But tribalism is part of human nature.
RB Yes, of course it’s part of human nature but it’s also part of human nature to be altruistic. I think it’s better to focus on that sort of fraternal and loving aspects of human nature, because our more primal instincts are catered for by our relentless consumer culture, always stimulating sexuality, tribalism, individualism.
DW I went to a West Ham match with you on your stag night. So do you feel part of that particular tribe?
RB What I’d say about football – and obviously in my case West Ham – is it’s a genuine opportunity to immerse yourself . . . In the beginning,
in the first five minutes, people want autographs and they’re interested but, after the first five minutes, no one cares because the game has started and they’re lost in it and there’s a real sense of community and congregation, which is like religious and spiritual life . . . And I suppose the reason you’re saying that is this is an important year of ritual – the Olympics is an ancient ritual; the jubilee is a celebration of our monarchy – and people need ritualism. We’ve lost touch with our ancient nature, so people accept these odd, commodified versions.

For me, the reason football is successful is that a neglected aspect of British cultural life – the white working class – still has this access to festivity. I do feel part of it, though I primarily identify myself as outside of any group that I find myself near.

DW That’s the comedian’s standpoint, the fool in King Lear. He is commentating on events from the sidelines. Speaking of monarchs, when you see the Queen, do you have an emotional response? When I think about monarchy, it doesn’t seem to make much logical sense but emotionally it does, because she’s a living symbol.
RB Yeah, “a living sign”, as Morrissey sang. So as much as I abhor the concept of monarchy – it being the apotheosis of a class structure – on
a practical level, I think: “Fucking hell, the royal wedding, the jubilee!”
DW Did you watch both on television?
RB I watched a little bit of the royal wedding.
DW Do you know that Philip Larkin wrote a poem about the Queen? It’s only four lines and he wrote it on the occasion of the Silver Jubilee:

In times when nothing stood
but worsened, or grew strange,
there was one constant good:
she did not change.

He was saying even then that she is always there and you always feel safe when she’s there. In difficult times of social unrest and war, she has survived. And if she can survive those things, a country can survive them, too.

RB Also, isn’t it interesting that our country became Protestant and the Catholic element of the mother and the virgin became kind of lost? Our monarchs becoming more iconic – Elizabeth and Victoria – goes back to that, in a way. We need that – I think we might be a matriarchal society.
DW What about politics – do you feel you’re outside party politics?
RB Yeah, I do. My honest opinion is that it’s redundant. And someone in a privileged position like I am can be dismissive. It is somewhat glib and people can be judgemental about that, because they can say if Labour’s in, they’d increase welfare or the minimum wage or the NHS would be protected. Of course, all those things are important. But what I mean is that both the parties in the two-party system occupy such a central territory that I regard it as irrelevant. I think that there needs to be massive social upheaval from the left.
DW Do you think the Labour Party became irrelevant at some point?
RB Yes, I do.
DW With the arrival of Tony Blair?
RB Prior to that, really. That­cher’s opposition to the unions and the sale of council houses and the dismantling of the working class, I think, is when it began in our country.
DW Do you feel this party has lost its way?
RB A lot of young people – among whom I sadly can no longer include myself but whom I consider to be my cultural constituency – regard politics as not representative. I’ve never voted in my life.
DW Really?
RB I will never vote in my life. Yeah, I don’t agree with it. It’s gestural politics.
DW So what’s the alternative? What would you like to see?
RB I’d like to see spirituality brought to the forefront of life. I think that socialism is the politicisation of spirituality. I think we have a cultural obligation to regard the whole as more significant than the individual. The communal is how we build our values – and that is somewhat hypocritical coming from me, a self- infatuated, successful entertainer.
DW Well, I wouldn’t call you an entertainer.

Fortunately Russell laughs at this but launches into a tirade about my public persona, describing me as “gooning about like a cupboard in a suit”. Which made me think it was best not to make a joke at his expense. By sheer force of will, Russell will always have the last word.

DW So you think that one day we can move to something that is completely beyond politics and voting . . .
RB Yeah, I do, actually. I think beyond even communism. I think it’s inevitable. I was watching a documentary about Joseph Campbell yesterday and it said that this worship of economy and prosperity and politics is relatively modern. We can’t build our lives around rational materialism – it’s just one aspect of consciousness and we’ve allowed it to govern us. There’s a great quote from Einstein who, when asked if he was religious, said, “There are unknowable forces in this universe that I’ll never understand, and none of us will ever fully understand, and I hold these forces in great reverence, and to that degree I am religious.” Spirituality is important. Otherwise, I’d just spend my whole time chasing skirt and pay cheques.
DW But you do do a fair bit of that . . .
RB That’s right.
DW It’s complicated, though, isn’t it? Because through sex you can feel that you are experiencing something transcendental.
RB Yes, but that means you’re not doing it properly.
DW Or drugs, they can be transcendental for people but both of those things feel false, because they’re purely temporary. I feel it’s a pointless debate about whether God is real or not. I think the debate should be about whether it’s worth believing in God or not. Because no one’s going to be able to prove his existence, it’s more like: “Do we want to give ourselves over to a higher power?”
RB It doesn’t matter if there’s a God or not but the world would be a better place if everyone lived as if there was one.
DW But then, some would say that people who have given themselves over to spirituality to the point of being religious fanatics have created a lot of chaos and war and death.
RB Yeah, but I think that the problem there is fanaticism and I think fanatics from any denomination should all go to live on Fanatics’ Island and stab each other to death, while moderate people who are interested in spiritual connections get on with the rest of the world.

Carr crash

Russell was always arguably more famous than he was popular. Peter Kay and Michael McIntyre had higher TV ratings and sold a great deal more live tickets and DVDs. However, the newspapers have never been fascinated with them. There was a time not so long ago when Russell would be in the tabloid newspapers at least three times a week and if we went out together to a nightclub (we were both single then and, of course, he is again now) it would be news. Now Russell is a big success in films and TV in the US and his fame has spread worldwide in a way that Kay’s and McIntyre’s haven’t.

Our mutual friend the comedian Jimmy Carr, who recently had his problems with the press, told me Russell doesn’t bother reading newspapers any more.

RB I stopped a while ago. It’s one of the great decisions of my life, much as I love British print media. I loved the Sun, the Daily Mail – but once I started being in them . . .
DW When you say you loved the Daily Mail . . .
RB Well, obviously I don’t love its ideology.
DW You like it as entertainment?
RB Yes, I like the way they write. For example, I read a story not long ago about this woman who had a fox in her bedroom. This fox got in the house and [there was] the attitude of fear that’s applied to everything – whether it’s immigrants or homosexuals or a fox. The fox got in the bedroom and she’s like, “Earlier, I’d seen it through the window and it looked small but when it was in the room it looked bigger.” Not understanding the concept of perspective . . .
DW Do you think it’s a dangerous force, because some people believe what they read?
RB Yeah, I think that if you’re not discerning, it is probably quite problematic, to engage too much.
DW And what about the Sun?
RB People who are part of these institutions, they’re all still human beings – I try not to be too judgemental. Like Paul Dacre, he’s a person who loves his children and loves his family and presumably . . . Rupert Murdoch is, too. I know a few people who know Rupert Murdoch and they say he’s a really nice man!
DW If you let someone pursue their business interests to that extent, you’ve got to question why you’ve allowed that to happen. Of course he wants to be the most powerful news man in the world. What do you make of David Cameron? Were you in the country when he passed comment about our mutual friend Jimmy Carr’s tax affairs?
RB That further endorses the notion that politics is irrelevant. Why is he pronouncing on Jimmy Carr? It’s a populist jibe. David Cameron commented on my situation with Jonathan Ross. It was talked about in the House of Commons.
DW Were you secretly pleased?
RB The naughty schoolboy part of me thought, “Wow!”
DW Being told off on a huge scale.
RB I’ve been told off by the government!
DW Not many people can say that.

David Walliams is an actor, comedian, author and a judge on “Britain’s Got Talent”


David Walliams is a comedian.

This article first appeared in the 16 July 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Crisis

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide