Mark Thomas interview


Having spent much of his adult life campaigning on issues including the arms trade, the illegality of the Iraq war and the misdeeds of Coca-Cola, comedian and activist Mark Thomas has now turned his attention to the ongoing financial crisis.

 

With banker bonuses and government bail-outs there has been a huge amount of public anger about the credit crunch. But at the same time, esoteric terms such as derivatives, quantitative easing and fractional reserve banking mean many people are also very confused and ignorant about the issue too.

 

"I don’t think it is that complex, but the jargon is baffling," Thomas tells me backstage before one of his shows at the Tricycle Theatre in London.

 

"I think people get it automatically. It is very, very simple: the bankers have got the money, we’ve got the recession. They’ve got the increase in wages, we’ve got the increase in unemployment. You don’t need a degree for that."

 

It transpires that Thomas is working with a new technician tonight, so our time together is limited. Luckily the 46-year-old south Londoner speaks incredibly quickly and cogently, is knowledgeable and often very funny. He is, in short, an interviewer’s wet dream.

 

Thomas’s It’s The Stupid Economy show initially included him interviewing experts and academics about the credit crunch. Guests such as Liberal Democrat Vince Cable, Professor Richard Wilkinson, author of The Spirit Level – a book Thomas highly recommends – and Newsnight’s Paul Mason joined the activist comic on stage.

 

Approximately 100 tour dates later, the show has morphed into The Manifesto and Thomas seems to have become something of an expert himself, albeit one who liberally sprinkles his arguments with the F-word.

 

"The economic crisis we face is the result of politics," he explains. "People think it is just a blip in the market, that it was just a handful of bankers and two million people defaulting on their mortgages that caused this.

 

"If two million people can bring down laissez-faire capitalism by not paying their mortgages, all the revolutionary parties would have been investing in subprime!"

 

Thomas is particularly articulate speaking about what he calls "the financialisation of our lives." After the second world war "there was a consensus that said the state will do a series of things for you," he argues.

 

"You will pay tax and have certain obligations, but in return the state will provide a council house and the state will pay for your pension. The state will also have nationalised industries that work for the benefit of everyone – whether that be water, railways or steel."

 

Since 1979, Thomas notes the Conservatives and then Labour have "rewritten this post-war consensus." Their "drive to privatise" has "put everything into the market and led to all of us becoming speculators. All of us, to a certain degree, are now involved in the financial market."

 

As an example, he points to the current housing crisis. "The very people who should get council houses are the people who are targeted for subprime mortgages. We built 300 council houses last year. There are 444 councils. We couldn’t build a council house in every council. That’s outrageous."

 

Regarding solutions to the current crisis, Thomas says there is "masses" that could be done, including nationalising the banks, demerging the big banks and introducing the compulsory remutualisation of building societies.

 

He is especially keen to start taxing the rich properly. "People say if you tax the rich they will leave the country," he says. "But my point is they have gone already! They are offshore. If you think they’re here, you are living in fucking dreamland. Our job is to get these fuckers back and make them pay."

 

He sees the government’s recently proposed £65 billion a year cuts as intimately connected with this issue. "Forty billion is the figure you get if you take HM Revenue and Customs’ figure of how much tax went offshore in 2005. The Tax Justice Network’s estimate of how much tax goes offshore is £100 billion. So take the average – £65 billion. There is your money!"

 

This argument, along with many other interesting nuggets of information, pops up in his The Manifesto show later that night. "A thinly disguised political meeting," is how Thomas described it to one interviewer recently.

 

The format is as follows. The audience proposes policies to make Britain a better place. Thomas then discusses these during the show and, at the end, the audience votes on its favourite. The most popular policy is added to a People’s Manifesto, which Thomas promises to campaign on.

 

The policies voted in by audiences from around the country have ranged from the serious (nationalise the railways) to the bitingly funny (anyone who supports ID cards should be banned from having curtains) to the ridiculous (that Windsor be renamed Lower Slough).

 

Thomas’s favourite proposed policy is the introduction of a maximum wage. His belief that it will probably only become viable in 20 years time because "movements take time" reminds me of Tony Benn and one of his favourite dictums, "To make progress you have to be patient and impatient at the same time. Impatient to get it done but realise it does take a bit of time."

 

Indeed, watching Thomas entertain, educate and energise the audience, it strikes me that he is the embodiment of the truly radical activist – inventive and passionate, often enlightening but never condescending.

 

Turning to his engagement with party politics, when I ask him whether he will vote Labour at the next election to keep the Conservatives out, he emphatically replies: "No, no. I will never, never vote Labour until they become socialist."

 

In particular, he highlights how "the gap between rich and poor has consistently got bigger and it’s done that under Labour, which is fucking outrageous."

 

Instead, this year, in a series of Youtube clips, he has publicly endorsed the Green Party. He believes they "have a far more radical agenda, in terms of an anti-corporate agenda and social justice, than any other political party that gets any sizeable vote.

 

"Climate change and social justice are the two most important things. I want someone who I can actually vote for," he adds.

 

But while Thomas argues that voting is important, he doesn’t see it as a substitute for grass-roots activism and campaigning.

 

"If you look at history, the Chartists or the Putney debates, you can see what we have done is we have fought for every single right we have and Parliament has simply been the rubber stamp at the end of the process."

 

Mark Thomas’s The Manifesto runs at the Tricycle Theatre, London NW6, until October 3. Box office: (020) 7328 1000. His latest book is Belching Out The Devil, an expose of Coca-Cola published by Ebury Press. Visit www.markthomasinfo.org for more info on his activities.

 

Ian Sinclair is a freelance writer based in London, UK. [email protected]

 

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