An inevitable part of any New Year is the tussle to define the old one before it solidifies into history. The Times newspaper caused a furore by describing Nigel Farage, the Ukip leader, as its “Briton of the Year” (the paper argued that this was not an endorsement; critics thought otherwise). The Guardian retaliated with a prominent picture of Russell Brand, the comedian and social campaigner, under the words “Hero of the Year” (he was selected by the environmentalist George Monbiot).
Both men, of course, appeared recently on the same panel on an edition of BBC Question Time in a heavily anticipated ding-dong. In the end their combat felt oddly muted, like a dutiful shoving match between two reluctant boys pushed together by a baying playground crowd. Brand called Farage “a pound shop Enoch Powell”, while Farage taunted Brand with the comedian’s superior wealth.
In fact, although billed as opposites, there are certain similarities. Both, although well off, openly seek to appeal to the ordinary man or woman in the street, bypassing the perceived stuffiness of the Westminster elect. Both flaunt past and present weaknesses almost as a badge of honour: Farage his penchant for a drink and a cigarette, Brand his former career as a heroin addict. Each man seems to spring from a previous decade of British politics: Farage from the 1950s, Brand from the 1970s. Their images involve an element of licensed naughtiness, and so the public tends to write them a free pass for misdemeanours, while more conventional political figures must writhe in ostentatious regret for any minor departure from the script.
I don’t think that either man has the right answer to Britain’s current difficulties. But if you look at their support, it can certainly lead you to the right questions. Brand’s campaigning platform is social justice, shifting into a more amorphous argument for a gaudy revolution that bypasses the dreary processes of parliamentary democracy. While his medicine has ample potential for toxicity, there is some truth in his diagnosis: the widespread feeling among people on low (or even middling) incomes that the security of their homes, the assurance of their salaries and working hours and their ability to secure legal redress in the face of perceived injustice, are all being eroded by forces beyond their control. It is small wonder that the beleaguered residents of the formerly affordable New Era housing estate in east London hailed Brand as their champion. They were effectively faced with eviction after a US-based investment company, Westbrook Partners, bought the flats and threatened to triple rents. The women who were prominent in the campaign all had jobs but were being priced out of a city which is now a haven for international property speculators and investors. It was largely thanks to the adrenalin-shot of Brand’s celebrity in support that the embarrassment factor grew too high for Westbrook, and it announced a sale to a charitable foundation committed to low-cost housing.
Housing is a political hot potato, and the temperature in the roasting tin is set to intensify. There is a place in any society for a mix of owner-occupied properties, privately rented accommodation and social housing. But the proportions are glaringly wrong. Around 1.9 million families are currently on the social housing waiting list, even as the Conservative party promotes the “right to buy” council housing as an article of party faith. Homelessness in families with children is rising.
Much of this insecurity also feeds into support for Ukip, which Brand so despises, and which can manifest itself as knee-jerk xenophobia. Yet while high immigration helps to redress the problem of our ageing population and promotes economic growth, the mere fact of a rapidly expanding population also puts additional strain on Britain’s infrastructure, such as schools, transport networks and housing. The wealthy can, to some extent, buy their way out of a failing infrastructure. Those on low incomes cannot. While the fruits of growth are often going to those near the top of the income tree, buckling services trap those nearer the bottom. If that imbalance of reward were addressed, popular resentments might subside.
Christian churches, both Catholic and Protestant, have been at the forefront of practical responses to need, such as food banks and homeless shelters. They must become yet more emphatic about the requirement for those in government to think morally as well as politically. Otherwise, in 2015, I suspect the national stage will once again be dominated by the fiery, paradoxical Punch and Judy show of Mr Brand and Mr Farage.