Musings on research, international development and other stuff

Get some perspective, Mr Brand!


In an interruption to normal service, I am taking the liberty of using my blog to engage with popular culture. In case you’ve missed it, Russell Brand, a British comedian, mainly famous for marrying an American pop star and for being an ex-heroin addict, has written an article calling on British people to start a revolution.

In a rather bloated and meandering diatribe, Mr Brand moans about his disillusionment with British politics, stating that “like most people I regard politicians as frauds and liars and the current political system as nothing more than a bureaucratic means for furthering the augmentation and advantages of economic elites”. To which my initial response is – “you don’t know you’re born, son!”.

Of course, it is true that there are politicians who you shouldn’t trust and that the system that supports them in this country is far from perfect. But I would really encourage Mr Brand to go and take a look at the political systems in some other places before whining about what we have. When the expenses scandal broke in the UK, I spoke to a number of African friends who were shocked – not that MPs were using public money for personal gain – but by the fact that anyone cared about politicians stealing what to them seemed like trivial amounts. We should be delighted that we live in a country where that type of behaviour IS seen as a scandal.
In many countries, politicians and officials routinely make use of public funds. In some cases this is illicit (see the recent scandal in Malawi). But the amount of funds that goes to support politician’s ‘legitimate’ expenses in many countries is even more shocking. For example, many politicians expect to be paid ‘sitting fees’ (on top of their inflated salaries) for turning up to meetings. This, along with accommodation at expensive hotels and business class travel is seen as normal and legitimate. I turned up to one meeting with a group of MPs in one African country and each of them was given an ‘arrival present’ of a high-spec new laptop (paid for with public money) to thank them for their attendance. A government official from a country in which millions of people live in poverty complained to me at a conference that his accommodation was not acceptable since when he travels he expects to stay in hotels with a minibar, a Sky Sports subscription and a Jacuzzi. While on a trip to another desperately poor country, the nation’s only functioning ambulance was taken out of service for a day in order to escort a group of dignitaries on a trip to the beach.

Mr Brand’s statement that “apathy is a rational reaction to a system that no longer represents the vast majority of people” suggests he believes that there was a previous golden age in which the system did represent all people and the people were as a result motivated and engaged – a concept which I find hard to swallow. He appears to believe that this golden age was responsible for all the great advances such as “the formation of the NHS, holiday pay, sick pay, the weekend” and that no further advances have been made in living memory. Really Russell? Really? I mean there is the small matter of equal marriage for gay people, equal rights for the disabled, the minimum wage, flexible paternity arrangements… All advances which have taken place during my lifetime and thus, presumably, his (unless he is in fact a toddler… and his whiny manner does make me wonder…).

Maybe, the fact that there are not revolutions on the streets of Britain is not because everyone is disillusioned and apathetic. Maybe it’s because some people recognise that they are bloomin’ lucky to live in a place in which they are comparatively free and have relatively equal access to opportunities. Don’t get me wrong. I am no Pollyanna and there are many things about the UK which I think could and should change. Of course prejudices exist in the UK including racism, sexism, homophobia and the rest. But I feel incredibly lucky to live somewhere where such behaviour is increasingly socially unacceptable and, crucially, not sanctioned by politicians. I still remember the first time I truly felt proud to be British (a relatively controversial sentiment for a Scottish person!) and it was when I happened upon a gay pride march in central London and saw the Gay and Lesbian Society of the Metropolitan police proudly marching in uniform down Oxford Street.

Rather predictably, Russel attempts to regain some credibility by telling a story about how he had visited poor suffering children in Kibera slum in Nairobi – poverty porn destination of choice for celebrities wishing to demonstrate their caring side (see @mjrobbins’ great article on Kibera here). This visit apparently made him feel a little bit guilty for a while about his lavish lifestyle and shallow existence. But rather than dwell on that for too long, Brand seems to have decided that fomenting unrest and railing against the evil capitalist system with pseudointellectual tripe is the most appropriate way of saving the world.


Brand attempts to deflect criticisms by acknowledging that people will accuse him of being a hypocrite who is “a Halloween-haired, Sachsgate-enacting, estuary-whining, glitter-lacquered, priapic berk has been undeservedly hoisted upon another cultural plinth”. In a way, this is a clever rhetorical device – somehow by getting in there first and predicting how he will be viewed, he almost manages to persuade the reader that the accusations that will be levelled at him are unfair. But actually, in the remainder of the article he does not really say anything that persuaded me not to view him in this way. He comes across as someone who badly needs to get some perspective in his life.

Right, sorry about that – I realise it was a bit of a rant. If you need some light relief, I recommend you check out someone else who decided to put on their fighting trousers here. Alternatively, if you want to hear more reactions to the Russell Brand article, check out this article from @arobertwebb and this editorial from @helenlewis.


7 thoughts on “Get some perspective, Mr Brand!

  1. Well Kirsty, as someone who finds herself benefitting from a bureaucratic machine that benefits from funds premised on a need to intervene in other countries to fix their problems I can’t say I am surprised that you take umbrage with Brand’s rant. After all, you’re pretty happy with things. I mean, forget police killing citizens with tazers, mass unhindered surveillance, jailing of a protester for shouting offensive things at a politician, evidence of any political organisation that is not a political party being infiltrated by intelligence agents (who also father children with some of those they are spying on), intimidation and attempts to discredit families (have you heard of Stephen Lawrence?) who try to get justice, bailing out of banks while cutting benefits, privatising government services so as to make profits for your friends (or even family members), blocking investigations into large-scale corruption (Tony Blair and the Al-Yamama arms deal), invading a country based on falsified evidence leading to hundreds of thousands of deaths but lots of military contractor profits, imposing sanctions on countries (Iran) that don’t play ball with you nuclear energy industry (forgetting the demonstrated consequences of Iraqi sanction on infant mortality)…how long a list would you like?

    Do us a favour: if you are incapable of thinking outside your own bubble please don’t be silly enough to criticise those who can.

    • Ah, Mr Anecon! Delighted to see you’re back and full of your usual vitriol (though sad that you still don’t want to use your real name). Thank you for pointing out that bad things sometimes happen in the UK – however I am puzzled as to which part of “Don’t get me wrong. I am no Pollyanna and there are many things about the UK which I think could and should change.” you didn’t understand?
      I believe you live in South Africa and have worked in a number of African countries so I am sure that you have experience of multiple different systems which you can compare to the UK. I would therefore be really happy to engage in a civil discussion with you about how the UK compares to other places. I have no problem with people disagreeing with my point of view. However, by submitting anonymous and hostile comments like the above you rather run the risk that you are the one that comes across as silly…

    • Hi ‘Anecon’/’Anon’/’Aecon’, while of course it’s clear that the setup here is by no means perfect and that dreadful things endorsed by the system have happened and will continue to happen, I still think that being in disagreement with – on occasion majorly flawed – policy decisions does not mean we should disengage entirely with the process (as advocated by Brand). In particular in the highly charged international development and foreign policy arena, I feel that trying to work with the system to influence it from within is much preferable to being revolutionarily spirited yet ultimately ineffective in bringing about change. This is the principle reason why I do what I do – which is work for one of the UK’s national research councils to support development-relevant research. Presumably though you would disagree and wouldn’t want to work for, or indeed accept funding from, a UK public funding body?

    • Anecon
      I have not approved your two most recent comments since they are personal attacks and do not relate to the discussion. I can confirm that I know that you are the same person who submitted the previous anonymous comments (using the name Anecon) since you used the same email address – both the email address and geographic location appear to me when I approve comments so there was no grand conspiracy to remove your anonymity. Your comments are becoming increasingly inappropriate and obsessive and I request that you do not submit any more. I will block any future comments which appear to be from you unless you use your official email address and real name.

  2. While I disagree with some of the specifics of what Russell Brand said, I do agree his core message that 1) the life support systems of Spaceship Earth are under huge stress, 2) the political and economic/money systems we have today are set up so that they intrinsically serve the few, not the many, and 3) item 2 is causing item 1.

    Therefore, it seems to me to be a waste of time to debate Mr Brand’s personality or intentions. The issues are what matter.

    To me, saying that “It’s not as bad here as it is over there” is also no excuse avoid taking action on the issues he has raised. Or do we have to wait until everybody lives in ‘Kibera’ before we can move to address them?

  3. For some reason, known only to WordPress, your weekly update has started being delivered to my BlackBerry, sans cartoons or other illustration, under the heading ‘Thinking about cycling’ – the other WordPress blog to which I subscribe. Since the author of that blog (an excellent read – I highly recommend it) also has connections to development work in Malawi (AIDS/women’s health) it took me aback to learn, in paragraph 5, that he was Scottish. A quick double-take revealed the author’s true identity and enhanced my already positive assessment of your good self. This was, in a much more lucid encapsulation than I would have managed, just what I thought when I heard the self-important, semi-coherent, ramblings of the sixth-form common room spewing from Mr Brand’s potty mouth. It baffles me why we have taken to giving air time to the likes of he who, with no discernable qualifications, background or rational argument jumps up and down shouting about the imperfections in the system that he has just discovered, having had his head up his own arse for the past decade. For shame, I merely shrugged my shoulders and dismissed the babbling fool. Well done for venting your spleen. I hope that it felt good doing so.

    Now, back to the Evidence please!

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