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‘I’m pretty good at channelling my anger into activism rather than tears’

Kate Smurthwaite

© Bronac McNeill

Who or what makes you laugh?

Mostly my friends and a few drinks. At the moment I love John Oliver’s new show ‘Last Week Tonight’. I didn’t think I could like any show better than ‘The Daily Show’, but it’s just brilliant. If I need a duvet day I get the ‘30 Rock’ box set out.

And who or what makes you cry?

Aside from low-quality reality TV, not very much. I like to think I’m pretty good at channelling my anger into activism rather than tears. But sometimes I come back to look at work I’m really proud of online and underneath will be a barrage of disgusting hateful comments and it’s just heartbreaking.

I often get asked to speak in schools and colleges at events intended to encourage more young women, and other groups, to get involved in activism and media campaigning. All very earnest and well-intentioned but completely missing the point. There are things I’ve said and pieces I’ve written that I wish I hadn’t. Not because my views have changed (there are some of those too but I don’t pretend to be perfect) but because of the strength and ferocity of the backlash. We don’t need to patronize young people with a ‘you can do it message’, we need to build a culture where they can express their opinions without being subjected to violent threats, abuse and bullying.

What are you politically passionate about?

Truth. We often think about politics as being differences of opinions but the reality is that that there are very few differences of opinion. It’s about truth and lies. People who are against immigration genuinely believe that immigrants are hurting the country and taking away jobs. The facts show the exact opposite is true.

There is no campaign against green initiatives among those who think climate change is real. The campaigning is from those who incorrectly believe it’s not happening.

Those who oppose a woman’s reproductive rights, access to contraception and abortion almost always do so because they genuinely believe they are acting on a ‘moral’ code imposed by a supernatural deity. The simple fact is that there is no deity. You never see atheists haranguing people outside abortion clinics.

If we can get the facts straight, we won’t need to waste any more time arguing about ‘opinions’, we can just start solving things.

If you were Prime Minister for the day, what is the first law you would change, and why?

I’d change the way parliament operates. Firstly in the chamber itself – all that bickering and shouting over each other. If a group of teachers behaved that way in a staff meeting they’d be asked to leave and fired if they didn’t. Or imagine you’re waiting for surgery in a hospital and the doctors are next door discussing your treatment and all you can hear is ‘Calm down, dear’, followed by peals of laughter from all sides. You’d be yelling for a nurse to wheel you to the bus stop immediately.

Yet this is the way the most important decisions in the country are made. Of course some would argue it’s traditional – but so is sending small children up chimneys to clean them and I’m against that too. Others say it’s the ‘theatre’ of politics. Well, the Parliamentary channel hasn’t won any BAFTAs lately and the viewing figures are a lot lower than ‘EastEnders’ so they should stop trying to create theatre and start trying to run the bloody country...

Before an election every candidate should be obliged to answer a manifesto questionnaire with questions based on the public’s political priorities. Would you privatize the National Health Service (NHS)? What would student tuition fees be? Would you continue to support tax havens? That sort of thing. Then post-election if any candidate hadn’t acted on their answers, it would trigger a by-election.

Then I’d bring in a lobbying schedule in parliament. Corporate and business lobbyists can speak to politicians on Mondays (big businesses in the morning and small businesses in the afternoon), charities get Tuesdays, campaign groups get Wednesdays, constituents Thursdays and anyone can go into parliament and speak to any politician on a Friday. Right now all day every day is big business lobbying day and we end up with policies that reflect that. The only people who want to frack anything are massive energy companies. They shouldn’t be allowed to run the country.

I don’t think harsh punishments achieve anything. We should be rehabilitating people. Rupert Murdoch would make a lovely gardener. Jeremy Clarkson could drive a Meals On Wheels van. Katie Hopkins could teach spin classes

If you could banish one person from the earth, who would it be and why?

No-one, that’s too cruel a punishment. Really that’s the death penalty, in a way. I don’t think harsh punishments achieve anything. We should be rehabilitating people. Rupert Murdoch would make a lovely gardener. Jeremy Clarkson could drive a Meals On Wheels van. Katie Hopkins could teach spin classes. [Prime Minister David] Cameron and [Chancellor of the Exchequer George] Osbourne could pick up litter. Although that might lead to a massive rise in people dropping bags of their own faeces as litter.

Which is most nerve-wracking: stand-up comedy or appearing on ‘Question Time’?

Neither. I love my job. I’ve been doing stand-up far too long to remember what pre-show nerves feel like and I was buzzing to be on ‘Question Time’. I’ve wanted to do it forever, and even more so when I found out who the other guests would be. I did specially ask to be on with someone from the current cabinet because I don’t want to waste my time with a bigot with no real power like over-exposed [leader of the UK Independence Party Nigel] Farage; I want to be talking to the people who can actually change things. And they turned up [Conservative politician] Ken Clarke for me, which was perfect. Well, I obviously got to him cos now he’s stepped down from the cabinet! Also Lord Oakeshott, who was on with me, has since left the Liberal Democrats. I might be the Buffy of ‘Question Time’!

Tell me a bit about your work with Abortion Rights (AR) UK…

I’m the media spokesperson for AR, or as some of my dear friends like to call me ‘the face of abortion’. There are a lot of women’s rights organizations I’m involved with. The other two big ones would be Eaves Housing – which helps trafficking victims – and Women For Refugee Women – which helps asylum-seeking women, but they’re usually given more sympathetic media coverage. The AR role puts me right in the firing line for cups of coffee and being called a murderer.

Reproductive rights are very basic human rights, if you don’t have control over your own body, your other rights are pretty meaningless. The anti-choice campaigners never face up to the fact of what taking away a woman’s right to choose means. It means forced pregnancy. That’s unbearably cruel. I’m very proud to be part of an organization that refuses to stand for that.

Can comedy be a tool for political and social change?

Yes, definitely. Shows like ‘Last Week Tonight’ and ‘The Daily Show’ have a huge impact on culture, all the more so because they make us laugh and think about issues in new ways. We really lack a show like that done well in the UK (TV executives – call me, I would love to make that show for you) but we still see publications like Private Eye having a huge impact. In the age of viral videos and click-baiting I think activists like UK Uncut and The People’s Assembly know that making a point with humour as well as passion has a bigger impact than sterile conferences and policy statements.

What is your biggest fear?

That we’re going backwards. One of the most dangerous ideas ever is this notion that things inevitably get better. The march of progress. They do not. Brave and wonderful individuals have been fighting for your rights for centuries. Not just to get them, but to keep them, too. We should be more grateful and more aware of the need to keep fighting. I went to state schools and then to Oxford University for free; when I’m ill I walk straight in to my local NHS clinic or hospital and I get great treatment. In a generation’s time quality healthcare and education could have become a luxury only the rich can afford.

And your biggest hope?

That some TV execs read this and call me! And that people are a lot smarter than we give them credit for. My comedy shows have always been unashamedly highbrow; a former agent used to joke that we should put ‘only graduates need apply’ on the flyers. But people from all backgrounds came, and laughed, and had a great time. We don’t need to dumb down our politics: people are smart enough for the truth.


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