I write at a difficult time. The balls are in the air, but we know not where they will land. Perhaps, by the time you get to read this, more will be clear. Right now, however, we know only that Ed Miliband has been interviewed by Russell Brand. We do not yet know what he said.
Or what Brand said. Probably he said more. ‘That was interesting enough, but Russell Brand was a bit restrained’ is something that nobody has said, after any conversation, ever. Most likely he’ll have quite liked Ed Miliband. They’ll have friends in common. Probably even girlfriends, what with them both having such voracious sexual appetites. Plus, earlier this year, when Brand popped up on Question Time and everybody said he was an idiot, Miliband popped up afterwards and said he wasn’t. So there’s good blood there.
You can mourn the rise of Brand and to be honest I often do. He’s a vexing combination of clever and ignorant, and most infuriatingly seems to feel that his ignorance is everybody else’s fault. His childhood does sound like it was horribly rough, but he’s pushing 40 and he’s been off the drugs for at least a decade, and he doesn’t have kids or a day job. So he might have found the time to read the odd book by now, or at least to have had somebody explain to him how graphs work. His biggest failing, I think, is a sort of holy solipsism. When Russell doesn’t understand a thing, invariably it’s the fault of the thing.
Pointing this out in The Spectator, though, doesn’t get you very far. The main thing Brand does these days, as far as one can make out, is a regular Youtube video. He calls it ‘The Trews’ — a combination of ‘the news’, and ‘true’; bloody clever — and each video is watched by at least 100,000 people and sometimes by millions. Hence it not actually being terribly unreasonable that Miliband should be sneaking around to his house under cover of darkness for an interview. Call me an establishment stooge, but I’d rather live in a world where the likes of Russell Brand went to a potential next prime minister, rather than vice versa, only that’s not the one we’re in. Back in Brand’s more promiscuous days, when he was famously having even more sex than a young Ed Miliband, another comedian once quipped that his home was basically a bedroom and a waiting room. Perhaps soon it will be again, only with a whole different sort of nervous sweaty person sitting outside, awaiting their turn.
It is fashionable to regard Brand’s appeal to the young as a damning indictment of more conventional media and politics, latterly neglected by a system which has begun to prefer an intimate view of the inside of its own backside. To me, though, this seems to wrongly suggest that there was some golden age where parties and media were doing things better, with equal numbers of young people eagerly circulating the speeches of Clement Attlee and suchlike. I don’t think there was. More to the point, vast numbers watching Brand does not entail vast numbers agreeing with him. Millions follow him on Twitter, for example, but often only to write ‘PARKLIFE!’ in response to everything he says. Still funny.
He must have something, though. Loathe him, disdain him, despair of his appeal, but he has a direct line to parts of the electorate most politicians cannot get close to. In truth, blaming extant politics for not doing enough to stem the rise of Brand is a bit like blaming classical musicians for not reaching out enough to stop the birth of rock and pop. Indeed, maybe his political clout comes directly from the way that actual pop stars seem to have gone off politics altogether. So, while it’s tempting to see him as Che Guevara without a rifle, maybe he’s actually more like Bono without the songs.
Brand’s heart is in the right place, almost certainly, but that’s simply not the place he normally talks out of. Personally, I’m unsure that any sort of sane politics can survive the leery filter of The Trews. His schtick — a mix of charisma, justified outrage and intellectual laziness — seems to me to be a mobbish, populist and ultimately cynical way to look at the world; a filter through which nothing unpopular, complicated or truly brave can pass.
The thing is, that’s not just him. That’s the whole logical conclusion of a properly democratic mass media, accountable to nobody, free to sing out unbounded whatever song its audience wants to hear. This is the future, like it or not. And because of that, I have a sneaking admiration for Miliband giving it a go. I just hope he got the odd word in.
This is a preview of Hugo Rifkind’s column from the new Spectator, out this Thursday.