Friday, 25 October 2013

Russell Brand and My Democratic Dilemma

I’m one of those people who doesn’t switch off when it’s Prime Minister’s Questions, who also (when I’m not too tired) switches over to Newsnight after the 10 O’Clock News has finished, and who wishes that the Andrew Marr Show was on at any other time than Sunday mornings. I’ve always found politics fascinating, ever since the 1992 General Election when we had a mock election in school. But the other day, when I opened a letter and found the electoral roll forms to be filled in, I inwardly groaned.

My dilemma is that even though I follow politics, I have absolutely no idea who I will vote for at the next election. Thankfully the next General Election isn’t until 2015 so I have plenty of time to think.

The trouble is that I now cannot support any of the main political parties - or indeed any of the smaller ones. There are some aspects of Labour policy that I support, and other aspects I disagree with. The Tories talk sense on one issue and absolute rubbish about another. And the Lib Dems are just the same as the other two bigger parties. There is not one political party or political ideology that I could sign up to with a clear conscience. 

The culture of British party politics is also extremely off putting and its adversarial nature means that politicians seem incapable of having a grown-up conversation about difficult and complex issues. Much of political discourse is about point scoring and undermining  your opponents rather than being constructive and working together to help make Britain a better place to live for everyone. If one political party comes up with a good idea - and it does happen occasionally - then the opposing parties will never admit it and will always try and find something to disagree on. Why is it that our political classes are so lacking in good will and grace towards anyone who has a different opinion to themselves?

But what has been even more disturbing this week is that I’ve found myself having sympathy with the political views of comedian Russell Brand! While his BBC interview this week with Jeremy Paxman was politically naive and lacking in any kind of constructive strategy for reforming the political system, I did find myself sharing his contempt for how the political classes operate.

Many politicians have questions to answer about their behaviour and motivations, but are they wholly to blame for our political system? Could it be that the people who vote for them - us - are to blame? Russell Brand says he has never voted and never will because he doesn’t want to be complicit in the political system. Is democracy itself to blame? Are our politicians only as good as the people they want to win votes from?

Democracy is a political system where the majority elect representatives so what the majority think and believe in theory holds huge power. But what happens when what the majority think and believe is oppressive or dangerous for a minority? Is democracy good for minorities? On the issue of immigration and asylum the majority of the general population is hostile. The Coalition Government and Labour (both in the previous administration and in opposition) both have policies that make the lives of many asylum seekers miserable. I have seen genuine asylum seekers deported or put through immense suffering because successive governments want to win votes from the majority who are worried about immigration. So can we blame the politicians for everything or are we who vote also complicit in oppressing minorities?

Is the solution to get rid of democracy, to stop voting and to have a revolution which benefits the underclass rather than the corporations? This seems to be Russell Brand’s rather vague manifesto. I’m not sure that getting rid of democracy would do any good, and the alternatives don’t exactly inspire me with confidence. After all, Winston Churchill once said: ‘Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.’

For all the failings of politicians and the electorate, I’m afraid we’re stuck with democracy. However, we shouldn’t see democracy as an elite political ideology. Like any other philosophy and ideology, democracy is only as good as the human beings involved. It is capable of being corrupted and used as a tool of oppression. So what we need in Britain is a democracy that is a bit more grown-up and willing to discuss complex issues sensibly. We - as voters and politicians - need to move beyond adversarial slanging matches, ditch comfortable soundbites and avoid trivial point scoring. 

Such a system will be messy and frankly rather frustrating, but to work it needs to include everyone and for the voices of the oppressed and minority groups to be heard by all. As a Christian I cannot avoid the teachings of Jesus in the gospels. Jesus came not to start a political movement but to restore the whole of creation. What he had to say about human sin and our own selfish motivations, about justice for the oppressed and speaking truth to those in authority needs to be heard in our democracy.

British democracy will never be perfect - simply because we are all flawed humans - but what Jesus said and taught has to be the foundation stone for a democracy that is based on love for others rather than self interest.

Parliamentary copyright images are reproduced with the permission of Parliament


  1. I think what worries me most about the Russell Brand interview with Paxman is that he was entertaining, genuinely funny, articulate - and who could not enjoy seeing Paxman almost tongue tied in his own cynicism for once! - which belies the seriousness of the subject matter and the dangerous message he seems to be propagating. We cannot deny that politics is a mess or that some politicians are corrupt. But you might as well argue that there is no point in being a Christian as many of them are sinners!

    We could of course have a long debate about this, but I suppose the crux of my response would be that, as Winston Churchill is alleged to have said, democracy is the least worst form of government, where opposition is free to challenge those in authority and power.. To accept Brand's argument would produce anarchy and worse. To me not voting because you don't like the system or the candidates is opting out of your responsibility for ensuring responsible government.

    I agree wholeheartedly with your last paragraph Dave, so you, and I, will just have to struggle with our lack of belief with any or all of the current political parties, and eventually vote for the party we believe at least has the policies we approve of, and then when they are elected constantly call them to account. Whatever else, vote! Both Jesus and Paul expect us to support law and order and to pray for those in authority.

  2. I would certainly agree with you that Russell Brand's views are potentially dangerous and his political views are in no way constructive to any kind of meaningful reform of democracy. While his apathy towards voting is in not to be commended, his distrust of the political classes is something that is shared by many younger voters and should be of concern in a healthy democracy.

    Revolution, and sweeping away the current political model, is something that is attractive to Brand, but I certainly agree with you that this kind of anarchic revolution can never produce anything good. It may be controversial to say but any government is better than no government at all. After all anarchy always means that the weak who suffer the most. We see this time and time again in failed states - Somalia and Iraq after the US invasion are two recent examples.

    However, for a healthy democracy to thrive in the UK the millennial generation (of which Brand would most closely identify) need to find a way to engage in a form of democracy that they can believe in. This is the challenge that Brand appears to have identified, but I think we need to look elsewhere to find a more constructive solution.