This interview first appeared on our old website, back in 2005, but is as interesting now as it was then. To find out what he has been up to since 2005, check out his website.
There are those that think emancipation will come through the building of a mass workers revolutionary party. Mark Thomas does not have time to wait for that to happen, he is a one-man campaign group (well, almost) that is tirelessly looking under ‘The Mans’’ carpet to find the dirt he tries to keep from the rest of us.
Mark constantly has his nose in the rule book so he can play ‘The Man’ at his own game and embarrass him along the way. We caught up with him backstage at his gig in Newport on his tour with Rob Newman (his way of proving he is not a one man campaign and he really does have friends).
Activism is a serious business; those involved are on a serious mission to overthrow the system and create one where people come before profit for a change. There is a problem though, if you pay attention to what is going on, you will soon get pretty pissed off and angry. Staying pissed off and angry all the time leads to depression, burn out and you losing all your friends, or the ones with a sense of humour at least. Not only does Mark Thomas appreciate this, but he goes a step further and uses comedy as a weapon in his campaigning. His latest little scheme is to get around the ban on mass protests around parliament by coordinating the applications for hundreds of individual protests all at the same time. On top of that you can add his own TV show, regular stand up tours of the UK, a live CD and now a book on the arms trade ‘As Used On The Famous Nelson Mandela: Underground adventures in the arms and torture trade’.
He is not the only person to use comedy as a weapon in direct action, the Clandestine Insurgent Rebel Clown Army for instance also use humour, the difference is Mark is actually funny! Were he not so angry he would make a good non-political stand up, but he is angry, very angry, which makes for a very special brand of satire that stands head and shoulders above the rest of the pack. He makes Ben Elton look like the middle class prat that he really is. His show consists of detailing the wrong doings of the big bad woolf, which are often so outrageous you just have to laugh, and tales of jolly japes and daring do that he and his mates have been involved in. Mark takes his humour beyond the stage and TV and actually goes out and gets his hands dirty doing a bit of direct satire.
But which comes first, comedy or activism? “They both come together, you can’t divorce them for me, it is all tied up with who you are, where you come from, how you think. For me, I wanted to be a comic from the age of 18, I declared myself an atheist at the age of 12, I was fairly precocious. It was always intermingled, it is not a question of putting one before the other, it is a matter of being appropriate”.
Given that Mark is touring with Rob Newman, does this mean that Mark is the new David Badiel? “Ha, no, Rob would love that question, sometimes he will say something that is a little bit out of order I jokingly say to him, I am not David”. That’s reassuring!
There are a lot of things going on in the world that need putting right. One of the problems facing those that care is what to focus on. Should it be fighting environmental issues, human rights, fascism, war, the arms trade, unfair trade, exploitation, poverty, animal rights …. Just where do you begin? “I go through a process which means there are some things deep down inside me, Tony Blair would call it ‘core values’, if he had any. There are things, which innately move me, and things grow out of that, it is quite shambolic and organic. I was getting ready to do a lot of work on the arms trade in 2002 but it was superseded, the Iraq war was the thing that needed to be concentrated on. I was doing a show and I went on stage talking about the arms trade then after about 20 minutes, I just thought FUCK, this is wrong, so I went on to Iraq. And it started a campaign, which is still going on today, it is a campaign in which myself and others tried to get the government into court over their use of UN resolutions. We tried to collect money for a war crimes tribunal and the money is being used for that, our lawyers have been able to hold big human rights conferences and are now doing the work to try to make the British government accountable. At some point that will swing back in and I will be on board with that again. So it is not just a question of what is at the top of my post it note now, it really is a question of what is going on”.
If you have ever seen Mark in action you will know that he is always pretty well informed. Surely doing stand up, TV and direct action does not leave any time research. “For the TV show we have a budget for researchers, cos you have to get it right. Also, for the TV show there is an enormous amount of pressure in terms of time and budgets. We have to make a whole series from the budget some people would spend on just one show. And some of the stuff we are filming is quite sensitive, we have the most legal support of any show channel 4 does, or at least we are certainly the one that the channel 4 lawyers remember most. At the moment I am writing a book about the arms trade (Has now been published), and I have someone doing some research about that for me. She works for me one day a week and I give her a list of stuff I need referencing and she will go out and spend the day digging. It is like all the little bits and pieces, like “this bloke said this but I cannot remember where or when” and she will go and dig it out, other stuff will be more complex. A very small and arcane point in the book was that the government changed their code of conduct and guidelines on arms sales three times and claimed that they were within EU guidelines, and of course they weren’t. We actually spotted that three days ago, now, this will end up as half a page in the book, but we need to be on top of it; so today this lovely woman is stripping down these three reports and dissecting them. But when I write for the new statesman, I do my own research, so it is a bit of a mixture”.
Mark is clearly not a believer in building mass revolutionary parties and is closer to the 21 st century direct action style of anti-capitalism than the politics of the left. Does he consider himself to be an anarchist? “I used to”. For the first time in our conversation he has to pause to contemplate an answer, but not for long. “I don’t hold with the insurgent theory, if we keep running at a brick wall eventually everyone will join us, and I don’t hold with the SWP/Trotskyite line of forming a vanguard to which the working class will rally. I will be completely honest and say I don’t fucking know. It is what ever fits at the time. I think the best thing we can do is be examples and find ways of working together. Some of the stuff I am working on now.. people would slag me of for being a reformist, and I don’t have a problem with that. I was not involved in the direct action stuff at DSEI recently… but I was inside and caught 5 guys doing illegal deals selling electro shock equipment, got them in the press, got two of them nicked and got them investigated by customs and excise and kicked out of the country. So we all do our bit, in different ways, and I just choose the ways that I feel appropriate”. Which is fair enough, Marks’ own little bit can often have more impact that a thousand black hoodies with sticks.
“The thing is with the left, is we have lines, we have ‘positions’, and the positions are often taken for granted. If so-and-so says that then we must be against it, my enemies enemy is my friend. That is just not the case. Take Burma, cos I been writing about it this week; There is a report that recommends that we need to put Burma before the UN security council, written by Vaclev Harvel and Desmond TuTu; America is supporting the move to go before the security council, it does not mention sanctions and military action is not on the radar, it is just about having a look and calling Burma into focus the international community. Labour won’t even support putting it on the agenda, but America are supporting it. It is the first time I have turned around to the British government and said that we should be following them!”
“There are things that unite certain issues. The idea that once we get rid of capitalism the arms industry will fall apart, and therefore anything we do must be geared towards getting rid of capitalism is slightly bonkers. It does not help on the ground, to expose these bastards and show people what is going on and help us to force the government to change the law, which they have done. I am not a fan of government of any sort, I was in the western Sahara and somebody said what are you going to do to your government, and I said it is not MY government, if it was MY government I would be around the foreign office at the weekend using the phone. I am their citizen, which makes it a whole different ball game”.
Mmmmm, clearly when Mark pauses it is not because he does not know what to say, it is because he is taking a deep breath ready to go off on one.
One subject mark has put a lot of effort into is the campaign against the Illisu Dam Project in Turkey, which if built will force up to 78,000 people from their homes and will flood the 10,000 year old town of Hasankeyf. The project has suffered many delays, many of them because of pressure from campaigners has frightened off some of the backers and construction companies. At one point the project was shelved, but it does appear to be back on the agenda of the Turkish Government once more. Displacing 78,000 people is not something that would worry a government with one of the most appalling human rights records in the ‘western world’, but there are now talks about allowing this country into the EU. “I think it’s great, REALLY great’” Mark tells us enthusiastically. “If turkey joins the EU then all their institutions will be opened to scrutiny, they will have to come up to standard, they will no longer be able to electrocute people in police cells. The number of women that have been raped in turkey as an instrument of war is incredible. They wont get away with that in the EU, they will be hammered. So bring them in, the Turkish people aren’t my enemy, this is everyone’s game, this raises the game for everyone.” This was not quite the answer we expected, demonstrating faith in the EU to have an impact, but he does have a point. Lets hope he is right.
Another subject Mark has put a lot of effort into is the campaign against Coca Cola and the call for the boycott of the product for its involvement with the deaths of trade unionists in bottling plants in Colombia and the environmental problems they have caused with their plants in the third world and a huge list of crimes against humanity. However, ethical consumerism is hard work, Pepsi are just as bad, its impossible to find an ethical oil company to buy petrol from, nestle have dodgy baby milk policies, Nike use sweatshops, and McDonalds!…. “Absolutely, yeah, Pepsi, runner up in the throat cutting competition. But there are two types of ethical consumerism, there is the personal ‘I won’t buy that shit off these people’, for example stuff like the Tesco that has opened around the corner from me. There was a hospital there and it got shut down, and we were thinking, surely we want affordable housing, or whatever, but it got turned into a Tesco, so I very grumpily drive past it everyday, but that is just a personal thing. But the Coca Cola thing is a bit different, it is a demand on the company to change, a very clear set of demands, a very clear course of action and every time you think ‘I am not going to drink this shit’ you are forced to explain it, the same with nestle. It is difficult sometimes, like ‘I am really sorry I bought disposable nappies, but my kid is leaking shit’”. Now there’s a thought, but a good way of illustrating that we cannot be righteous all the time, practicality gets in the way.
We could not let the interview end without bringing music in, so we tactlessly chcucked one final question in at the end of the chat. What was on the stereo on the way here in the car? “Augustus Pablo, East of the Nile; Louis Armstrong, Rob’s old music hall tape and some salsa. BUT… on the way back, Bizet’s Carmen, I don’t know much about opera, but I like bits of it, it means you can drift into radio 4 for the news and back out again”. Augusts Pablo eh! Witty, politically sound, intelligent and good music taste to boot. Bastard.
PRODUCT: A selection of some of the books and CDs with Mark’s name on the cover.
THE NIGHT WAR BROKE OUT:(2004)
AS USED ON THE FAMOUS NELSON MANDELA: underground adventures in the arms and torture trade (2006).
Book, the title says it all!
MARK THOMAS COMEDY SHOW:
Belching Out the Devil: Global Adventures with Coca-Cola (2008)
Mark Thomas Presents the People’s Manifesto (2010)
The result of Mark touring and getting audiences to come up with policies aimed at sorting out the country’s political chaos and taking back the power for the people
Extreme Rambling: Walking Israel’s Separation Barrier. For Fun. (2011)