Outspoken comedian, activist and anarchist Mark Thomas is bringing his current show, ‘Check Up: Our NHS @ 70’ to HOME, Manchester, 8 pm on Friday 8 and Saturday 9 March. The Meteor spoke to Mark on his previous visit to Manchester when he performed at the Lush Showcase. He talked about his thoughts and feelings for Manchester, the housing crisis, poverty, and some of his previous shows.
Recently you interviewed Magid Magid, the Lord Mayor of Sheffield. How was that?
I quite enjoyed it. He’s a nice guy, but I think the important thing about him is he is fun, he is not the usual suspect, he is about inclusivity. He is about challenging the ways of how you do things in a traditional and staid manner. Whether there’s actually any other political flesh on the bones, I don’t think we really addressed that.
He’s the youngest mayor for Sheffield and is the first Green Party mayor. He’s also the first Somali and refugee to become mayor. So, there are lots of things which makes him being mayor very interesting. He also doesn’t dress in the normal kind of way that you would expect other mayors to dress.
What does your ‘People’s Manifesto’ show involve?
People put in suggestions about what they’d like to change politically. They send in any suggestions of change be they stupid or radically brilliant. We discuss it with the audience and vote for a manifesto. So, we create a manifesto out of ideas from the audience and the general public.
What has been your favourite ‘People’s Manifesto’ idea so far?
I think possibly my favourite was a maximum wage. I love the idea of a maximum wage because if a society can vote democratically on a minimum wage, what’s the minimum we will allow people to earn? Then we have to have the ability to choose a maximum wage. Democracy trumps money; that’s how it should work. Democracy trumps money, democracy trumps all things. And actually, it would be great to have a maximum wage because poverty is not an absolute. It’s a relative thing. The fact you’ve eaten a packet of Jaffa cakes in a day doesn’t mean that you’re king of the biscuits. It means you’ve had a packet of Jaffa cakes. It’s all the other things that go around it.
Have you eaten anything else? Have you had to really think the day before about why did you buy it? When did you buy? How did you buy it? Where did you get the money from? All these things play a role in how you define poverty. I love the idea that if it’s relative we can alter the boundaries of relativity, by creating a minimum and a maximum wage.
How do you think things like technology, artificial intelligence and robotics will have the power to help free us from work?
Well they kind of do and they kind of don’t, because actually you know, work’s a good thing. I know there are anarchists who would disagree with me, but it depends how you define work; it depends what I mean by it. To have purpose and drive and a way of expressing yourself that exists outside of your most important familial and love relationships is really amazing. The idea that AI would mean that we just sit around playing and working on an AVID suite creating our own home movies, I’m not sure that it works like that.
I think the thing about AI is who controls it? Who has it? What is it? What does it have an effect on? Does it undermine people? Because actually, you know, there’s a whole lot of workers who have experienced technological shifts across the years, whether it’s people working in the industrial revolution, whether you’ve got looms, or whether you’ve got the spinning jenny, all these things: industrialisation. These all affect people’s ability to be independent and their ability to actually survive and to control their lives.
What does Manchester mean to you?
Manchester has changed a lot since I first came here. I first came in as a student and I just thought it was really thrilling. I thought it was thrilling. I thought it was radical. I thought it was working class. I thought it was fun. And I think for me as a student it was really exciting.
I think it also represented an area that was bustling with ideas, you know, it represented something really exciting. And it’s changed enormously. I mean, we used to be involved in all sorts of stuff. We did a project in Manchester City Centre about advertising and those freestanding boards. We worked with the UHC, an art group, and they produced these linen shrouds, and on them they had this print of a tree and it just said, “trees breathe, adverts suck”. We had teams of people who went and covered every single freestanding board in Manchester City Centre. Just for a moment in Manchester City Centre there were no freestanding adverts.
I loved that side of Manchester’s activism that Manchester has always had. Manchester has always had a really vibrant and exciting activism; whether it’s queer activism, whether it’s class activism, whether it’s environmental. The Red Bricks for example was a notorious brilliant hot spot of anarchists and ideas and squatters and activists. Working with them was thrilling. I loved that stuff.
So, when you say “what does Manchester mean to you?” It means all sorts of things. It has connotations of The Dancehouse from when we really first started doing gigs. It was in the run up to the first Iraq war. We used to do the gigs there and then we’d go and do actions and then we’d come back and do the next night and tell people about the actions and organise the next one. That was thrilling.
We did one gig where I’d been censored by the BBC, over a report I did on the arms trade about the Hinduja brothers. Technically they broke the law on arms exports and the BBC lost their bottle, over being threatened by lawyers. We told the story and at the end of it we gave everyone these massive banners about censorship and the whole audience went out holding the banners up.
There’s Elliot Rashman, who used to be manager of Simply Red and of the Happy Mondays at one point, who is one of Manchester’s most brilliant sons, I think. He is the son of a Jewish working-class tailor who then goes on to become a man of ideas. For me Manchester is someone like him. He was one of Tony Wilson’s bessie mates.
I love Mark Radcliffe’s quote “Manchester’s a city that believes that tables are for dancing on.” I love that quote.
I love the fact that Engels was here, I love the project done at Home, with Phil Collins, the project of bringing a statue of Engels into Manchester. Engels lived in Manchester for over 20 years and it’s where ‘The Conditions of the Working Class in England’ was formulated; one of the most important books.
You’re talking about the ‘Ceremony: The Return of Friedrich Engels’, right?
Yeah, in it he goes out to the former Soviet Union to try and find a statue of Engels to bring it home, to put it up in Manchester. He finds Engels’ statue in two halves in a farmyard in the Ukraine. He drives it back to Manchester and then holds interviews with people in Manchester about working class life and living under austerity. But also, what he does is get these activists involved in an unveiling day. They had this massive day, where they take over the square and it’s beautiful.
In the film there are people talking about shoplifting, there are people talking about bedroom tax, there are people talking about all these different rights and things. And what he’s asking people to do is to compare the conditions now and to compare the conditions then. People standing with massive banners with “Communism’s coming home”. It was fucking perfect.
So actually, what you have in Manchester is you have these two things. It’s represented in the Radisson Blue; the site of the Peterloo massacre.
You have this huge fucking yuppie development of a hotel on the site of one of the most radical moments in British history, that turned the argument and the movement for democracy. And so when you say ‘What does Manchester mean to you?’, it means a whole load of things which are about radicalism and about creativity.
It’s not like rights are won and everyone’s alright. No, they’re not, that’s not how it works. You fight for them, and you continue to fight for them because otherwise they will be taken from you.
My idea of what Manchester is and what it means to me is complex and it’s full of friends and it’s full of ideas and it’s full of a changing history. It’s full of my history with the city and activism.
For me it’s really exciting, and I think what’s always been interesting in Manchester is the current culture, the underground movements, the spaces that people can’t quite control; and that’s why gentrification is so fucking vile. Because it just cleans out the spaces that people can’t quite control and controls them with ownership and selling.
From your previous show ‘100 Acts of Minor Dissent’, which act was your favourite?
I think the ones that change things were my favourites. The show was designed to be a rolling campaign, that for a year I would commit a hundred acts, and that this would roll into things and we’d try and be creative, and we’d try and find ways to fight things. If you saw the show at the beginning of the year you’d come back and you’d see something completely different because you go away, you have the adventure and you come back, and you tell a story. That’s what I do.
What I loved, there was a series of actions which resulted in Curzon cinema recognising the trade union and paying the living wage. And we did a series of actions with the workers there in support of them and our actions, and our presence changed the outcome. We know that because we applied for my data under the Data Protection Act. I’ve got this much internal stuff from not just Curzon, but from their PR company that were hired to deal with me. [Mark held his hand up to indicate a thick wedge of paper].
That one is my favourite. A group of workers got trade union recognition and we were involved in part of that struggle.
What are you interested in at the moment? Anything we can help you with here at The Meteor?
I know that you’ve done stuff about overseas ownership and that you’ve been tracking property there. If you go to London, there are bits of London which are just fucking empty and they’re empty investment husks.
We were doing a thing on the South Bank. I bumped into a guy and there’s a host of signs saying, ‘No Loitering.’ So we created a ‘Loitering’ sign and we got teas and coffee and homemade cakes, and encouraged people to have conversations and tea and coffee with us. One of the guys said, ‘I work in the new block’ and I said ‘Oh, how’s it going?’
He said ‘I’m a concierge. It’s an amazing place; they’ve got gyms, and they’ve got swimming pools’ I just said ‘So is it all sold?’ and he said ‘yes, it’s absolutely all sold’. ‘So, it’s full?’ I asked, and he said ‘No, no, no it’s not full. It’s about a third occupied, the rest are foreign investors.’ I was struck by that. You know we’re in the middle of a housing crisis and its massive, it’s fucking huge.
There are two prongs of the housing crisis that you can see immediately; it seems the millennial generation cannot actually get a fucking house to rent let alone buy because the hotness of the selling market has reflected in the investments of the buy to lets and the rental markets. So, scarcity is created, this hot market. It’s pumped up way past what it is worth. And you see it in homelessness, the massive rise of homelessness very, very clearly. You can visibly see the increase on the street. There are indexes that you could measure homelessness on, but I think the middle class register it in discomfort. How many times they are discomforted in their walk down the street.
The idea that London and the British government is somehow a bastion of fair play and we’ll go out across the world teaching people how to do it, is the biggest sick joke going
For me there’s a really interesting thing here. Which is, you have people buying property in London because it’s safe, right? Because it’s an investment and it’s having a massive repercussion. Now, because of Brexit and uncertainty those property prices are dropping, and they could go down by 35%, that’s what we’re talking about. Fucking great! GREAT!
In economist terms, it needs restructuring. The economy needs an alteration. There’s a great phrase that they use: ‘an adjustment’. There is an adjustment that the economy needs.
People need to lose money; that’s the bald fact of it. People need to lose money because they’ve made silly money and it’s inflationary, weird money. It’s offshore money, it’s foreign investment money, it’s corrupt money. The idea that London and the British government is somehow a bastion of fair play and we’ll go out across the world teaching people how to do it, is the biggest sick joke going.
What’s interesting is seeing places like Manchester and Edinburgh where property prices are increasing because those places become havens for where you can put money in Britain. The London property market starts to crash as people leave, due to Brexit uncertainty. Why would you invest in something that’s so fucking hostile? So now they’re going ‘okay, we’re going to put it somewhere else’.
So, the fact that you guys are looking at where the money is going in Manchester is really important because where that money is coming from, how it is being channeled and what is being invested in and what impact it has on people’s homes or lack of them, is really crucial.
One of the biggest things that we can do, is look at tax havens, you know British Overseas Territories and Dependencies. There is a massive amount of tax havens. Nearly half the tax havens in the world actually have a British connection with being former Commonwealth countries or they’re dependencies or territories. And Britain could stop it. We have to put a massive stop to it right now. And we could simply, as if you look at a British dependency, actually legally it’s controlled by the Privy Council.
We can stop this now, should we want to do it, but we don’t. The ruling class and Britain’s elite do not want to change tax havens. They don’t want to change it because it benefits them.
For me it’s like a magician’s box, a tax haven is like a magician’s box. Stuff goes in there and we don’t see what happens but something else comes out the other side. It’s really important to understand that the secrecy is the enemy. The enemy to democracy and fairness.
What’s really important is actually that we expose these things. A friend of mine went around the Channel Islands recently and he said ‘People feel really worried, Bankers are really worried there, and they’re really worried because Britain is leaving the EU and the EU is leading the way on transparency and attacking tax havens. And now Britain isn’t at that table, we’re not the anchors any more.
They’re fucking terrified. That’s really important. It is one of the reasons why because people are worried that actually they’re going to have their stuff exposed. They’re gonna worry, they’re worried fucking sick, that people are going to go in and say, ‘Oh that money is going there’.
Now if you look at the money that leaves Africa in terms of capital flight vs. the money that goes in in terms of aid it is hugely disproportionate. So capital flight, tax avoidance leaving Africa is massive. And this is a blow to those individual countries’ economies, this is a huge negative.
When they go ‘Oh it doesn’t hurt anyone’, it actually does: it hurts people all the time. It takes money out of public services. It takes money out of places that desperately need investment in public services;; whether it be infrastructure, whether it be medical, or whether it be education. Those things are absolutely crucial, and this stuff literally costs people their lives. It impacts on their existence. It is a sin. It is fucking evil and we need to get a grip on it, so I applaud anything that tries to bring it to light.
For me, at the heart of what we want to do is, we want to get these fuckers and make sure that this stuff actually stops. We’ve seen what happens with gentrification in Manchester. It can only increase if London loses its safety valve, if you like.
So, do you feel that places like Manchester and Edinburgh are places that need to be alert?
Absolutely, and I think that, if you’re looking at a plus side to Brexit, a property crash possibly is. It is possibly a plus that actually house prices would go down, foreign investors, corrupt investors, offshore tax haven money, you know hidden trusts, that’s going to be fucking exposed. You know Brexit is basically Britain just pulling the plug, and when that tide goes out, we’ll see who the fuck is around.
James KA Baker
Mark Thomas – Check Up: Our NHS @ 70, HOME, 8 pm, Friday 8 and Saturday 9 Mar 2019
‘Mark Thomas is 54, the NHS is 70.UK national average life expectancy is 84. If Mark makes it to 84 the NHS will be 100, what will they both look like?’
Feature Image: James KA Baker