So Canterbury was the scene of one of the most rowdy editions of the BBC’s flagship political discussion programme Question Time for some years. Well, it was always likely to happen with UKIP leader Nigel Farage pitted against self-appointed revolutionary Russell Brand on the panel.
The contest created a great deal of heat and passion. What is interesting, however, is how far someone likes a man or woman is a determinant to whether we actually hear what they say.
Looking at the reaction to last night’s broadcast on Facebook, or on news sites ranging from the Huffington Post, the Express, the Independent and the Telegraph, their relative performances appear to have merely confirmed what people had already thought about them: Farage is the racist, uber-establishment scumbag, and Brand the millionaire fool.
Farage faced hostility from the moment he started talking – both from Brand and large parts of the audience, some of whom hailed from the South Thanet constituency he will be contesting at next year’s election.
This didn’t faze Farage at all, however, and he remained articulate and determined on his core issues of immigration and the failures, as he sees them, of the political establishment. Contrary to what Farage apparently stands for, much of what he actually said could have been voiced by any number of Tory ministers and MPs.
As a battle-hardened professional politician whose threat to the Conservatives and divisive agenda always places him in the line of fire, the UKIP leader handled the barracking relatively calmly. Though turning on sections of the audience, describing them pejoratively as Brand’s natural voters, was probably ill advised.
Brand was his usual uneven combination of quotable soundbite flourishes – such as his depiction of Farage as a ‘pound shop Enoch Powell’ – and feeble retorts to direct challenges, particularly from the audience. He’s rousing and infuriating in equal measure, but then it’s still churlish to complain: he’s not a politician. Shouldn’t we at least listen to voices outside the trained, on-message establishment?
And it’s not as if Brand’s arguments have no merit, and many of his ‘true news’ YouTube programmes, The Trews, are reasonably well-constructed pieces of comment journalism.
Still, back to Canterbury. Farage probably beat Brand on points, if only for being more controlled under attack. That fact alone probably gave him the higher moral ground in many people’s eyes, while Brand’s passion rendered him uncomfortably inarticulate at times.
Beneath the clash of personalities, however, are two powerful narratives which are struggling to find an outlet. Both relate to the perceived detachment of and betrayal by the Westminster political establishment.
The first is immigration, on which there are two competing arguments: that immigration is good for the UK economy, and especially from within the EU (a view supported by various bits of research, most notably this study); and the claim that the numbers coming to Britain are too high.
On the second point, there is considerable anecdotal and some research evidence to suggest that immigration has hit the economic fortunes of the poorest 20% in our society. While immigration has had little impact on average earnings across the UK, the Migration Advisory Council (MAC) agrees that it has had a “notable” impact on income inequality.
In a review of current immigration research, the MAC concludes: “The literature suggests small impacts of migration on average wages but notable effects across the wage distribution. The studies … broadly agree that migration is more likely to increase wages at the top of the distribution, and reduce wages at the bottom. Consequently, migration may have caused the pay distribution to become more unequal than it otherwise would have been.”
Being at the bottom of the economic scale, those directly impacted by immigration are also likely to be the less well educated, skilled or articulate sections of society. Among this social segment, which might appear to some as quite unfashionable, are people who are more likely to have been cut adrift by the Westminster machine – particularly under the Coalition government’s drive against welfare benefits.
Indeed, having targeted much of his austerity at the most vulnerable people in society, chancellor George Osborne has signalled his intent to slash benefits for those of working age if the Tories are re-elected. So much for helping the ‘working poor’.
Immigration has long benefited the UK as a whole, culturally as well as economically. But given the overall context of injustice in the UK, the anger within the bottom 20% is completely understandable. And as sections of this group tend to also be socially quite conservative, their anger finds a natural home with Nigel Farage and UKIP, who sees lower economic growth as a price worth paying for lower immigration.
But it is the same context of injustice from which Brand’s arguments arise. Because while the poor is penalised in the wake of a financial crash that was not of their making, the corporate elite – and especially the banking sector – has been given complete cover by the state from the consequences of its own idiocy.
So, while George Osborne suggests that UK taxpayers should be spared the £5bn a year burden of paying out Jobseeker’s Allowance, he has no such qualms about the £14bn a year subsidies and grants that go directly to businesses, nor the £85bn a year paid to large corporations and the banks in corporate tax benefits and cheap credit.
In other words, while attacks on social welfare threaten whole sections of society with destitution, corporate welfare is to remain unchallenged.
Look at the absence of any criminal action or banking sector reform, and the conclusion is inescapable that the state and the political establishment has not only been captured by that corporate elite, but has also become its guard dog. To the captured state, we can probably also add the legal system and most of the press and media.
You might not like Russell Brand, but what he has to say about corporate power is overdue and well-made. And Brand is not the only one saying these things: many other commentators far more equipped and ‘respectable’ than Brand have been making the same arguments for some time.
Unless the political establishment begins to address the issue of corporate power and impunity, then the state’s legitimacy will be increasingly threatened. If you think the brand of political debate displayed in Canterbury yesterday was ugly, well you’ve seen nothing yet.