London, October 31, 2014 (Alochonaa): Behold Russell Brand, the Hollywood actor turned populist leader of Britain’s disillusioned youth. He was once just a skinny-jean-wearing, chest-hair-baring comedian. However, since his 2013 interview with Jeremy Paxman, he has transformed himself into a skinny-jean-wearing, chest-hair-baring political guru. His visibility in our media appears to have reached a crescendo in light of his efforts to promote his new book, Revolution, in which he calls for the overthrow of all capitalism in favour of a ‘purer’ communitarian form of existence; he is plastered across British television and print, with interviews on Newsnight, the BBC’s foremost political affairs programme, as well several of Britain’s biggest broadsheets – even the Financial Times has sat down with him. He has 8.4 million followers on Twitter. That’s 10 times more than David Cameron. So what’s behind Russell Brand’s appeal?
For starters, there’s the force of his personality. There’s a solid collection of photos and videos that exemplify the Labour Party leader Ed Miliband’s profound inability to connect and communicate effectively. Take the one of him trying his best to ‘look normal’. Or perhaps the one of him repeating himself several times in a BBC interview as he attempts to stick to the party line. While positively likeable in comparison, David Cameron’s Eton and Oxford heritage is glaringly obvious. His life experiences are far removed from any ordinary Briton, and it shows.
Consequently, there is now a vast space at the top for some personality. Russell Brand has combined with Nigel Farage, the leader of the UK Independence Party, to help fill it. He’s got mountains of charisma and charm. He has personality to spare. The way in which he tamed Paxman, once one of Britain’s most feared interrogators, provides evidence of his talent. In his chat with the FT, his interviewer, Lucy Kellaway, described the potency of his personality and its effect on other people as comparable only to Bill Clinton’s – and she fancied Russell Brand to edge it in a one-on-one.
Trait number two is his authenticity. It’s hard to deny that Brand seems genuine when he talks about his burning hatred for the power of the corporate world. His own struggles with alcohol and drug addiction as well as his working class upbringing strengthen his integrity, providing powerful context to his motivation to tackle society’s ills. Again, this nobility lies in stark contrast to the leaders of our two main political parties; that video of Ed Miliband repeating himself really is quite dumbfounding.
Combine this with his ability to tap into youth disaffection with politics today, and you’ve got Russell Brand’s appeal. Like Farage, Russell Brand has filled a vacuum in British politics. Where Farage has occupied the space for a strong anti-immigration stance, Brand has occupied the space for a more Robin Hood kind of morality, the absence of which has been keenly felt by young people. His disgust at the glaring inequality that suffocates us and his indifference towards a sterile, unrepresentative and detached political elite are echoed by many of Britain’s youth; in the 2010 general election, just 44% of 16-24 and 55% of 25-34 year olds voted.
The world is black and white for Russell Brand. He has a clarity over what’s right and what’s wrong that’s really refreshing. Yeah, it is wrong that bankers get so much money! It is wrong that the 85 richest people in the world are as rich as the poorest half of the world! His optimism that we really can do something about it (even if he has very little idea of what that ‘something’ is) also chimes with Britain’s twenty-somethings; they are our most hopeful age group.
So Russell’s got all the characteristics of a successful populist leader; he’s exciting, charming and charismatic, with a rare ability to tap into youth grumblings about the world and our political elite. The conditions for his rise have been perfect; Ed Miliband and David Cameron really do seem to exist in a different universe. So have Britain’s political left found their messiah? Probably not. It’s all well and good to point out all the problems in the world, but you can’t lead anyone without proposing an alternative. As The Independent’s Steve Richards puts it, ‘we await a revolutionary who plots what should happen as well as what is wrong’. Nonetheless, Britain’s political elite could learn a thing or two from him about saying what you mean and meaning what you say.
* Finlay Green, editor UK Affairs at Alochonaa, is currently studying an MSc in Social Policy Research at the London School of Economics, where he hopes to explore immigrant and community relations in East London. Prior to this, he graduated with first class honours in BA Economics and Politics from the University of Sheffield, where he focused on attitudes towards the Slovakian Roma in North East Sheffield. He also spent three months in 2010 working in the media office of Oxfam GB in Dhaka, Bangladesh.
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Categories: UK politics