Status anxiety

Russell Brand and Nigel Farage remind me of myself five years ago

Politicians don’t just compromise because they’re cynics. They do it to get things done

25 October 2014

9:00 AM

25 October 2014

9:00 AM

I’m often asked by other free school proposers what lessons I’ve learnt over the past five years. Any pearls of wisdom I can pass on so they don’t make the same mistakes?

My standard response is to reel off a checklist of things I would have done differently if I’d known then what I know now. To take just one example, we probably wouldn’t have introduced a ‘no packed lunch’ rule if we’d known that we’d have to provide all our four-to-seven-year-olds with free school meals. But the biggest lesson is one I daren’t share, which is that trying to give children a better education than the neighbouring local authority schools, with no additional funding, is really, really difficult.

When I embarked on this crusade, I thought I’d just be able to sweep in, create a blueprint based on a traditional model, and sweep out again. Opposition from the teaching unions, left-wing activists and the local authority? No problem — just bulldoze through. Keeping all the different stakeholders on side? A simple matter of being a good communicator. Dealing with contractors, planning consultants, environmental health officers, technical advisers and party-wall surveyors? To be honest, I wasn’t aware I’d have to do any of that, but if someone had pointed it out I would have taken it in my stride. I assumed that my goodness of heart and will of iron would be enough to overcome any obstacles.

In short, I suffered from the same naivety as most critics of the status quo — and when I hear people like Russell Brand and Nigel Farage railing against the political class, I recognise myself from five years ago. I’m not saying the Westminster elite is beyond criticism. But I suspect that, like me, these populist firebrands are underestimating the complexity of the challenges faced by those in power.

As a general rule, you can’t bring about system-wide improvements just by being determined and having the right motives. If someone is standing in your way, it’s not realistic to expect them to bend to your will. You have to sit down with them, work out what their concerns are and see what you can do to address them. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, you have to make a deal — and that can take a bloody long time, particularly if lawyers are involved.

To the angry outsider, this probably sounds like a rationalisation. One of the most common complaints about political leaders is that they lack conviction. The deals they make are invariably ‘sleazy’ or ‘shoddy’ because they involve sacrificing their principles, something they’re willing to do because their primary interest is to remain in power. But what these critics fail to appreciate is that politicians wouldn’t be able to do much in office if they weren’t willing to compromise. Politics is the art of the possible and what looks like cynicism to outsiders is often just realism to insiders.

What about Margaret Thatcher? She was a conviction politician, the purists reply, and yet she managed to bring about seismic change. Indeed, it’s precisely because she was unwilling to make any U-turns that she achieved so much.

There are two things to say about this.

First, it’s not true that she never compromised. She was ideologically opposed to nearly every aspect of the post-war settlement, but she left large parts of it intact — such as socialised medicine, taxpayer-funded schools and the welfare system. Her priorities were bringing down inflation, privatising state-owned industries and curbing the unions, and she focused on them. Yes, she succeeded in keeping Britain out of the single currency, but did nothing to extract us from the EU. By picking her battles, she managed to win three general elections on the trot and it was only when she over-reached, with the poll tax, that she came a cropper.

Second, in 1979 Britain was a basket case and during periods of national crisis democratic leaders are given much more leeway to railroad their reforms through. But it would be wrong to expect politicians to be equally wilful and unbending during more stable periods. When the fate of the nation isn’t at stake, their room for manoeuvre is much more limited.

For the most part, politics is boring and unglamorous and involves an endless series of meetings with men in suits, just like managing schools. The trick is to adjust to this quotidian reality without losing the fire in your belly. If you can do that, Mr Brand and Mr Farage, you can change the world.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.

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Show comments
  • The Ticker

    Russell Brand is a clown, a deviant and a charlatan. Anyone who takes him seriously shouldn’t be allowed to vote so I fully support his ‘Never vote’ idea.

    • Peter Stroud

      Also he seems, by his appearance, to be afraid of soap and water.

  • Guest

    I used to think Russell Brand has this different type of intelligence.
    Then he said Hamas do not use human shields, and he went out with Jemima Khan.
    Now I think he’s just another leftie cretin, like all of them.

  • Cymrugel

    Thanks for your honesty.
    The difference between you and Brand though Tony is that you were trying to do something useful – albeit I am not convinced that free schools are the right way to go, whereas Brand is just a grandstanding prat – as Johnny Rotten said very eloquently in yesterdays Guardian.

    • GraveDave

      John Lydon you mean. Lydon also said UKIP were morons.Wonder how that’ll go down on the Spectator. But it couldn’t be because Brand is this years punk rocker could it – (?) and Johnny’s feeling just a tad bit past it and over the hill.

      • balance_and_reason


        • balance_and_reason

          But John Lydon is another moron musician that should collect his royalties and then shut up…

  • In the end it was Brave New World rather than Big Brother which came to pass.

    Russell Brand typifies the modern phenomenon of politically correct conformity and obedience being pre-packaged and sold as a product, masquerading as rebellion.

    He rails against the socially-accepted, pre-designated targets of Fox News and the Daily Mail, institutions that everyone already knows are full of bias and misinformation, yet never dares touch the BBC, Guardian, MSNBC, Russia Today, Channel 4 etc. because it wouldn’t be profitable for his budding cult of personality.

    He’s selling himself as a generic rebel, who needs the ‘elite establishment’ in power quite simply because he thats exactly what his cult needs to be seen as rebelling against in order to generate its power. Throw out any issue you care to mention and you’ll know precisely what stance he’ll take because you know what stance he’s supposed to take; as predictable as snow in Alaska.

    However, odd as it sounds, I’m not quite sure I can really take issue with him personally! He’s similar to the preachers and ‘religious rock stars’ in America’s deep south who sell out 25,000-seater mega-churches and ten times as many books, living lives of opulance and luxury whilst simultaneously putting on a great show, pretending to identify with the trusting fools they con out of fortunes with remarkable ease.

    On the one hand, yes, they’re of course complete charlatans, but at the same time one can’t help but give them cynical credit where its due for their showmanship, ability to rabble-rouse and generate support from the swathes of non-thinking, easily led plebs muddling along in the world.

    His supporters claim that they one ought to ‘question everything’, yet they’re incapable of making the leap to questioning the outlook that Brand, The Guardian, Jon Stewart feed them; telling them to think for themselves, before instructing them with precisely the conclusion that they ought to arrive at.

    He demands change, yet never once campaigns for practical solutions that would contribute to his supposed ideals. For example, If he was really genuinely fussed about the failings of our electoral system then why not campaign for alternative voting or proportional representation?

    Well the answer is quite simple; doing so would deduct from his rockstar-rebel image and, whilst it would of course contribute to achieving the supposed egalitarian worldview he espouses, it would (far more importantly) lose the interest of his plebian audience and indeed the media coverage, which of course wouldn’t be optimal for his cult of personality. So of course, he goes for easy-to-shout, easy-to-rally-along-with platitudes about not voting, ‘the system’, ‘the military industrial complex’, ‘the bankers’ and so on and so forth.

    As I say, I’m not even sure I can really blame him for exploiting the ignorance, pride and intellectual laziness of much of the Western population simply because he’s done so incredibly skillfully; and for those that really are willing to buy his invisible product, I don’t really have a great deal of sympathy.

    My advice? Just amuse yourself by enjoying the spectacle.

    Yes folks, that really is the Emperor, stark naked on parade, smiling and waving to the adulation of the masses. Yes indeed ladies and gentleman, Russell Brand really does have 10,000 people listening to his calculated, deliberately meaningless ramblings on revolution and rebellion whilst he spoon-feeds them his trademarked brand of bottled air.

    The watching crowd itself IS the show.

    • GraveDave

      The difference between left wing and right wing papers isn’t always that of of ideology. It’s presentation I read the Guardian and the Mail. The Independent and the Telegraph etc… But I say one thing for the Guardian, at least it ‘s not afraid of printing its own bad news or that which might later bring embarrassment on its writers.The Mail gets things stupidly wrong time after time,.and yet never admits it was wrong. It’s also caused far more damage to free speech than papers like the Guardian ever could .

      • Fergus Pickering

        Partly, Dave, because no-one reads the Guardian except you and everyone reads the Mail.

      • balance_and_reason

        really…that would be Polly Toynbee singing the praises of socialism year in year out…as the evidence streams down the ticker of failure after failure after failure…I think you praise that rag too much.

    • Tom M

      Yes I agree with your take on people like Russell Brand. My question, when I look at him, is does he believe all that rubbish that he preaches, in which case he is the clown you describe, or is he cuter than that and just creating a facade to please the audience.

      After a few moments of reflection I conclude he is a clown. No intelligent person would make themselves look that stupid even for money.

    • obiwan

      An excellent comment. Couldn’t agree more.

  • GraveDave

    And did you have that much hair five years ago, Toby?

  • George Orwell

    I feel the need to have a good wash after watching him…Yuk!

  • Damaris Tighe

    Good analysis of Thatcher. As for the Kafkaesque wall of bureaucracy & vested interest that every reformer must encounter, why are they sacrasanct? This has been going on for decades. One of the biggest complaints by political commentators in the 80s was the rise & proliferation of quangos (this during a Thatcher government!).

    Policy & decision making in the UK has become fascistic. I use the proper meaning of the word: representation & policy through government approved groupings (hence the fascist symbol of a tied bundle of sticks). Every new government should aim to reverse this fascism of special pleading.

    • AJH1968

      Brilliant! Quango’s are an absolute blight on our freedom. I think to some extent they are labours revenge.

      • Damaris Tighe

        And the Tories – they were just as bad.

      • Brimstone52

        It was the Thatcher government which was responsible for the expansion, if not the introduction, of quangos, wanting to put their activities beyond political interference or some similar nonsense.

        • balance_and_reason

          attempted but failed as Blair subverted it to his own parties long term advantage.

  • James Sides

    my favourite line of the article, which i’m going to interpret freely ‘if I had known we’d have to give food to children, i wouldn’t have done it’

    • EricHobsbawmtwit

      Well it wasn’t all that long ago parents were mostly responsible for feeding their own children. These days it’s The Minister.

  • GraveDave

    It’s very telling that crowd picture.Is it really from the anti austerity rally?
    Hideously white -what~?
    So where’s the rest of London’s rich tapestry, Russ?

    • Flower Powerchild

      they are busy drawing ‘beheld all infidels’ posters

      • Jay Walker

        no we not! just astounded at how polarised BritSociety has become. Black but support UKIP!

  • rtj1211

    You’re being far too nice.

    I’d lay enormous money that Russell Brand will do little of benefit for the country as he is an egowanker mostly interested in his own bank account.

    Nigel Farage needs to decide honestly when he has run his race and at what point he hands over the baton to others.

    He also needs to ask whether UKIP is merely the deliverer of an EU referendum or whether it is something more than that.

    Right now, all the stops are starting to be pulled out by the EU/UK Establishment to kibosh UKIP. Self-serving and unprincipled they will be. Ed Miliband and David Cameron suddenly changing policies which they ‘abhorred’ for 15 years, just to try and win an election. That’s not principle, it’s power grabbing. Ed Miliband could have resigned from Blair’s Goverment if he believed in immigration controls. He never did. Same with the Iraq war, he never did. He is an unprincipled, mercenary, fatuous, windbag of a bullshitting political anorak utterly out of tune with the reality of a country he has never had a real job in.

    David Cameron is in a more difficult position as he has had to try and keep a competitor to UKIP on the road whilst in Government. He can’t just jump ship and become a revolutionary overnight, it just doesn’t work like that. He’s had to be in Coalition and many in the country are far too immature to accept that, mostly in the media, it has to be said. British democracy has been undermined by that media hatred.

    We will see where Nigel Farage takes us. But I do think that both Miliband and the Establishment have taken the UK pubic for granted for far too long and they are now like a wife who will no longer forgive yet another round of mistress humping being uncovered……

  • misomiso

    Very good article Tobes.

    But you are wrong in one respect implicit in your writing – compromise on the EU.

    There’s no halfway house on this. In the end you either believe in Britain’s membership or you don’t, and believing in it means eventual political Union, and the dissolution of the UK.

    That’s why Cameron has never been trusted by his backbenchers. The politically active Right could tolerate a PM who believes in the goal of Britain’s exit, but is more nuanced on the means. The reason they dislike Cameron is that they think he is a Believer in the EU.

    The Right needs a leader who they can unite around. Hence why its better to destroy Cameron at the next election and then unite around some one with impeccable Eurosceptic credentials, like Sajid Javid.

    Or Cameron lays out the renegotiation before hand, and it’s much more comprehensive then we’ve been led to believe.

    • Fergus Pickering

      Who the hell is Sajid Javid? Some horrid foreigner?

  • bobby_r

    Wrong again Toby. Have you been knocked on the head recently?

    – Nigel is ALREADY bringing about change in the establishment in the face of direct opposition and numerous dirty tactics from you and the rest of the MSM. For example, I remember the first time he insisted we talk about immigration at Question Time. There was a deathly, nervous silence. Now everyone in the media talks about it.

    – Brand is a poseur with moronic ideas who has not changed a single thing, and most likely never will

    Why would you even write about them in the same article?

    • Fergus Pickering

      Because he doesn’t like Farage and is afraid of him.

  • Richard Saint

    Brand is the perfect name for Russell, because everything he does is just to improve his ______

  • Realismista

    Even though I am not a fan of either of them, I wouldn’t put Brand and Farage in the same category at all. Brand knows nothing about economics and his infantile and completely unworkable ideas about “revolution” are just an extension of his stream of consciousness comedy act and, if ever followed by a large number of people, would end in complete nihilistic disaster. Farage is, on the other hand, an extremely astute politician who has definitely effected a tectonic shift underneath the political class with them seemingly unable to properly respond to it. As a result of the pressure being applied by Farage – and his ability to make struggling politicians who cannot master events look completely inept – I now think that Britain will exit the EU within the next decade, something that I never believed before a few months ago.

  • marklu

    “trying to give children a better education than the neighbouring local authority schools, with no additional funding, is really, really difficult” Except that local authority schools in the area don’t have mysterious ways of ending up with less SEN, FSM and EAL children that in their catchments.

  • Russell Brand and Nigel Farage are not the same and ought not to be lumped together in this way; their respective assessments of the problems currently faced by this country are different and, anyway, their differing solutions (as far as they are offered) are wrong in very different ways. ‘All happy families are alike. Each unhappy family..’

  • Jay Walker

    Brand makes some good points. He just has to be wary he doesn’t become/seen as a sanitised version of ICKE… a crack pot but not as bad as Icke!

  • richybagpuss

    I think Brand’s persona makes it difficult to take him seriously – which is sad because despite his irritating schtick he actually pinpoints a lot of the genuine problems with British politics. Contrary to comments below – Brand has been happy to take a pop at the BBC and The Guardian and has been able to speak with a freedom that the trained puppies from the populist parties could only dream of. I hope his ideas come to fruition but I can’t see it being through him:

  • Brimstone52

    “[Thatcher] did nothing to extract us from the EU.”

    On the contrary, she signed the Single European Act which set the ground rules for the Maastricht treaty and the EU.

    Thus, far from extracting the UK from the (then) EEC, Thatcher helped us in to the EU.

  • Owen A Lucas

    We’re galloping towards an ecological precipice and you want us to sit back and trust men in suits. There’s the greatest inequality this country has ever seen and you suggest we sit back and allow the pedophile-infested political class to have some meetings. The island is on the brink: divided through press and corporate collusion and corruption …and you want us to think about school pack-lunches. Spectator you need a Revolution!

  • balance_and_reason

    This must be a really annoying article for teachers to read….