Russell Brand is famous for his abstemiousness. Evangelical about the ‘no drugs, no drink’ programme that keeps him sober, he’s less than a week away from another grand moment of self-denial, by refusing to vote.
Brand is very big on this. Although I’ve never heard him actively admonishing people for visiting a polling station, he does make an impassioned argument for his own reluctance. As a man so very keen on social and political change, I’ve always found his position curious. Eager to understand, I’ve recently read Russell’s book ‘Revolution’ (the jacket of which, carries a direct steal from Manic Street Preachers, in the reversal of several letters to read ‘love’).
What immediately struck me about this Brand manifesto, is its dreadful style. ‘Revolution’, by any standard, is very badly written; to the extent that parts are almost incomprehensible. It is quite astonishing how a publisher can be blinded by celebrity. An unknown author submitting this manuscript would be retrieving it from the bin within an hour. No such ignominy for Mr. Brand, though. His profile protects him from any literary rigour or the inconvenience of general linguistic standards. Unfortunately, this leeway renders the book one of the worst things I’ve read in years. To quote:
“If I, so close to the peak, could glean no joy from that rarefied air, the air I was told, as soon as I’d acquired language, would absolve me, if in fact all I gleaned was the view from that peak, the vista true, that the whole climb had been a spellbound clamber up an edifice of foolishness, then what possible salvation can there be for those at the foothills or dying on the slopes or those for whom the climb is not even an option?”
Good grief! An 86 word sentence. This is fine if you’re James Joyce, much less so if you’re a priapic comedian struggling with your metaphors in a vain attempt to convey profundity.
But let’s leave Brand’s desperate need of a decent editor aside. His swamp-like prose is penetrable enough to glean that his unwillingness to vote is inspired by a loose philosophy, embracing a bit of mysticism, a smattering of hippyish universal brotherhood, and a touch of Marxist chain-breaking. Not voting, apparently, is the high ritual of Brandism. It signifies the absolute rejection of the system of oppression, which keeps us all in spiritual and economic shackles. By this token, Russell believes a low turnout next Thursday will send a spear of rebellion deep into the heart of The Man. If we’re lucky, it will be the strike which ushers in a love revolution.
It won’t though.
For the most part, not voting is feeble, apathetic and irresponsible. Anyone (Brand included) who imagines politicians toss and turn in the night, worrying a person may not turn up to the ballot, is kidding themselves on a grand scale. In fact, nothing troubles our rulers more than mass participation in a looming election. For five years they make free with their power, pushing through measures for which they have no mandate, trampling promises underfoot and ignoring popular opinion. Then, one Thursday in May, the tables turn. Suddenly they must plead, cajole and beg their way into our affections, for fear we may reject them with the stroke of a pencil.
To Russell Brand, voting is capitulation – a measure of an individual’s aptitude for conforming. He’s wrong. Voting is a means of seizing control, of holding leadership to account. It’s completely empowering and, in its ability to cause governments to fall, it is a revolutionary act.
The mathematics of our democracy are imperfect. Seats in the House of Commons do not represent proportions of the overall vote, a party can easily form a government even though most people voted for someone else. Worse, the second chamber sits without an electoral process at all. And it surely isn’t beyond our wit to allow an online voting facility.
Yes, the process is pretty wobbly, but you cannot fix a machine by walking away from it. If the political class has abandoned us, and are merely using Parliament for their own ends, as Brand proposes, then there is even more impetus to drag it back to society’s table and demand they explain themselves. For all its flaws, that’s what an election delivers. Were we all to follow Brand’s example, then the need for elections would be eliminated. A quick roll-call of countries where proper elections do not occur, gives us names like Burma, North Korea and Iran. Clearly, being free from democracy is the polar opposite of being free.
For all that, there is merit in the notion of an abstention vote – or ‘none-of-the-above’ as it has become known. I imagine this is what Russell Brand is driving at, the opportunity to use an election to express distaste and distrust. Just imagine if none-of-the-above gained sufficient votes to eclipse a couple of major parties, wouldn’t that cause a much needed shock to the system? I could certainly get behind that idea. So why isn’t Russell using his face and voice to lobby for that extra box on the ballot sheet? Perhaps it isn’t rock and roll enough; perhaps there isn’t a book in it.
Last year, in the ‘clash of the beards’, when Russell Brand was interviewed by Jeremy Paxman, I wrote in support of his bellicose railing against selfish, aloof politicians and parties. It seemed to me he was giving voice to a genuine disquiet and scepticism affecting the UK and her citizens. I now believe he threw away the chance he was handed by that moment. Rather than deploy his advantage to open debate and tackle inertia, he folded into a naive, ego-driven video podcast, and the semi-literate ‘Revolution’. My love of the Brand brand is now sorely diminished.
In just under a week, we’ll have the opportunity to shake-up the unshakeable edifice, to upset the apple-cart and for once, be heard. One stubby pencil, one graphite cross and the decision-makers are set running. Whatever Russell and his ‘Trews’ may say, and whatever the outcome, voting is both important and exciting, and I cannot wait to do it again.