Russell Brand caused controversy this week when he guest edited the New Statesman. Appearing on Newsnight to promote the magazine Brand boasted that he had never voted “because of the treachery, lies and deceit of the political class”. “Don’t bother”, he told viewers. He was criticised by left-leaning commentators, including Joan Smith and James Bloodworth (who dubbed Brand “the Jeremy Clarkson of the left”).
Although I disagree with Brand’s previous attitudes to women and the sex industry, I have always wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt. It seems like his heart is in the right place. However, I found last week’s comments difficult to ignore. There is a lack of integrity, for me, in being as derogatory and dismissive as Brand was when you haven’t thought through even the basics of what the alternative might be.
Revealingly, his friend Noel Gallagher said (in the New Statesman Brand edited) that, despite wanting a fairer world, he would be unwilling to pay more tax – a statement which surely illustrates the paradox against which modern politicians are fighting. Without a sense that wealthy people like Brand or Gallagher are willing to lead the way and make sacrifices is it any wonder change doesn’t happen faster?
Brand inadvertently put his finger on the problem himself when he admitted that the political right “has all the advantages, just as the devil has the best tunes”. He is correct: fighting for a fairer society is a slow and unglamorous process, which lacks the flash-in-the-pan ‘genius’ involved in writing a joke or a pop song. But without it we wouldn’t have, among countless other things, the NHS, equal pay for women, or the minimum wage. Brand himself may not benefit from these advances, but millions of ordinary people do.
The really frustrating thing with Brand’s stance is not its naivety, its narcissism, or its myopia, but how irresponsible it is. Young people I represent in London are often unemployed. They have to do unpaid internships, stump up extortionate rent, and pay through the nose to use transport. They require democracy more than ever, and need celebrities like Brand to be fighting to re-engage them rather than adding to the problem. I therefore urge young people everywhere to do what Bite the Ballot says and ignore Russell Brand.
Moving on to more meaningful forms of dissent, this week also saw Saudi women take to their cars in protest at the driving ban imposed on women. They did so in spite of open, unspecified threats of retaliatory action by the Saudi government. The nature of the threats meant many faced the stark reality of having to risk both their own and their family’s safety to fight for this basic freedom.
So far there have been no publicised incidents of retaliation against the women who participated on Saturday. Many have interpreted this as the strongest signal yet that the mood in the country is changing. Given that the first protest in the 1990s saw arrests and job losses for the women involved, you can see why they are optimistic.
Yet there is still a long way to go. Just a few days before the protest the Gulf state topped a World Bank index of countries for the number of laws in place limiting women’s economic potential – a reminder that the current ban on women driving is just one of many Saudi policies which embed the oppression of women. A long road lies ahead for Saudi women in their quest for parity with men.