and replace them with ‘Decent’ people
– Queen guitarist Brian May wants to help change the face of UK politics –
Plan is to galvanise the 18 million people who didn’t vote in last election
– Said people shouldn’t vote for party but candidate they think’s most decent
– May, 67, still tours with Queen and has a PhD in astrophysics
6 April 2015 by Jane Fryer
For a gnarly old ‘rock god’, Brian May is surprisingly soft and gentle. His voice is soporific — slow and measured. Perfectly suited to reading bedtime stories, or delivering the Shipping Forecast. Or perhaps singing gentle ballads about one of his myriad passions — badgers, astrophysics, Victorian stereoscopic photography, the late stargazer Sir Patrick Moore, vegetarianism, not forgetting his second wife of 15 years, the actress Anita Dobson. ‘She’s just brilliant, and so organised!’
Right now, though, he’s explaining — very politely, and without raising his voice, because as well as being the most beautifully spoken rock legend in the world, he’s also the politest — just how much he loathes David Cameron. ‘I am very, VERY much not a fan.’ They met once, briefly, in the corridors of Parliament, when Brian was campaigning against badger culling. ‘He’s very affable. Very charming. He stopped and said: “Oh, hi Brian, don’t worry about the badgers, they’ll be fine.” ‘Fine?’ He flicks the magnificent grey Louis XIV mane back over his shoulders in dignified disgust. ‘That’s a very telling remark. It was very pleasant on the face of it, but very condescending.’ Brian has a lot to say about Cameron. ‘To me, he’s a pillar of everything wrong: privilege, elitist Eton clique, no empathy. He has taken Britain back to something close to feudalism. That’s the sort of thing we want to change.’
‘We’ are Brian and his colleagues at Common Decency, the political revolution he launched last month with the help of a vast billboard in South London, emblazoned with the words: ‘You have one voice — one vote — use it!’
Just to be clear, it is not a political party and, although there were rumours, Brian is not running for Parliament. ‘It would limit me. There is too much I need to do.’ Instead, it is a campaign to kick the selfish and corrupt out of politics and replace them with ‘decent’ people, regardless of party.
‘We just want good, courageous MPs who are brave enough to follow their conscience — a rarity in Parliament these days.’
Brian got hooked on politics when he started campaigning against animal cruelty. He says: ‘The more I’ve seen how Parliament works, the more I want to bang my head against the wall’. His plan is to galvanise the 18 million people (or 38 per cent of the electorate) who didn’t bother voting at the last General Election and get them to pull their fingers out at this one, not by voting for a party but for the candidate they think is most decent — yes, even the Ukip one, if they are really deemed the ‘most decent’. His current favourites include Green Caroline Lucas, Labour’s Angela Smith (shadow minister for water and fisheries) and Conservative Henry Smith (who campaigns for animal welfare).
‘I want people to get off their a*ses to vote. And get their friends off their a*ses, too, and vote out the fat cats once and for all.’
His tools include a large injection of his own money, a laminated pie-chart for every constituency showing how the public voted at the last election — ‘I just love pie-charts’ — and a slogan, ‘no seat is safe, no vote is wasted’.
He shows me the pie-chart for George Osborne’s constituency in Tatton, where 31 per cent didn’t bother voting last time. ‘It looks like a safe seat, but if all that 31 per cent voted for the most decent candidate, the result could be very different.’
Brian is 67. As lead guitarist for Queen, he is also fantastically rich — worth an estimated £75 million. He could be lolling on a sun-lounger in Barbados, sipping vodka cocktails with Anita. Or playing golf with his London musician neighbours Robbie Williams and Jimmy Page. Instead, he’s a workaholic.
If he’s not trying to change the political landscape, then he’s campaigning for animal rights (he owns a wildlife sanctuary in Dorset). Or touring with drummer Roger Taylor and American Idol’s Adam Lambert (standing in for Freddie Mercury) as a re-formed Queen. Or making short films, or trying to get a delayed biopic of Freddie starring Ben Whishaw off the ground. Or pursuing his passion for astronomy (he has a PhD in astrophysics), or popping up on Buckingham Palace’s roof to perform live for the other Queen’s Golden Jubilee. As he says: ‘I’m not very good at relaxing.’
He goes to bed at between 4am and 5am. Not because he’s out partying with Mick Jagger, but because he’s answering emails, or writing, or recording his latest Brian Talk — a sort of occasional online sermon on whatever he feels most strongly about at the time.
‘I get very obsessed. And I have a hard time with perfectionism, stepping away from things.’
Blimey. He sounds hard to be married to. Doesn’t Anita ever shout, ‘Oh come on, Brian. Come to bed, for goodness sake!’? ‘I think I’ve heard murmurings to that effect,’ he says diplomatically. ‘But she is wonderful and has a whole regime of her own.’
Political activism came late. He grew up the only child in a modest Conservative-voting family in Feltham, West London. He had little time for politics as a student — he was studying for his PhD and, to his father’s disgust, abandoned it when Queen got their first break.
He got hooked on politics when he started campaigning against animal cruelty. ‘The more I’ve seen how Parliament works, the more I want to bang my head against the wall.’ His Common Decency campaign is the result of a recurring dream. ‘Inequality and unfairness and cruelty deeply upset me. I knew I had to do something. We only have one chance to do some good in the world.’
In Brian’s political utopia, MPs wouldn’t be forced to vote against their conscience, there would be no privilege, no austerity and public ownership of all banks Despite his workload, Brian could easily pass for 50. His hands are slim and lithe. His teeth are great. His face is soft and smooth. ‘It’s all the plastic surgery,’ he jokes. ‘Not really. I think it’s cold showers — I’m a massive advocate — and lack of sleep, of course.’
And his famous hair is perched on his head like a giant silver poodle. ‘It’s seen better days but at least it’s still here. I leave in a bit of conditioner to stop it going completely wild.’
He was always clean-living. While Freddie Mercury was snorting cocaine off silver trays strapped to the heads of hermaphrodite dwarves, Brian said a polite ‘no thank you’. ‘Most people around me were trying everything but I never took drugs, not even cannabis. It became a sort of experiment on myself, to be the control rat. I never minded anyone else doing it, but I knew that everything I was experiencing was real. I was high on music. And I never smoked, either. But I do love vodka.’
In 2006, he returned to Imperial College to finish the PhD in astrophysics that he’d abandoned 30 years earlier.
He describes the late Sir Patrick Moore as ‘like an uncle to me and the most generous man I’ve ever met’. When Sir Patrick ran out of money in his latter years, Brian quietly chipped in — buying his house to stop it being repossessed, paying for his carers. ‘He was destitute in the end. It’s funny how this country ignores its heroes. He wasn’t looked after by the State. I still miss him.’
For last month’s solar eclipse, after a lot of agonising about the cost, he chartered a small plane to intersect with the line of totality above the Faroe Islands. It was worth it — he and his chums witnessed a giant shadow racing across the clouds, then watched as the sun was eclipsed and the corona gleamed bright. ‘It was life-changing. Freddie would have loved it.’
Freddie Mercury pops up in the conversation a lot. ‘Freddie always stuck to his priorities. He didn’t suffer fools. He wasn’t a people-pleaser like me.’ Brian loved him deeply. After Freddie and Brian’s father died in the same year — the former of Aids-related pneumonia, the latter of lung cancer — Brian sought help for depression. Today, he takes some solace from a higher power.
‘I believe in some kind of God, which is a very unpopular thing to say as an astronomer. But I don’t believe astronomy is inconsistent with the existence of a higher power.’ In Brian’s political utopia, MPs wouldn’t be forced to vote against their conscience, there would be no privilege, no austerity and public ownership of all banks. Oh yes, and far higher taxes for people like him.
‘I’ve paid millions and millions of pounds in taxes and I’m proud of that because I believe taxation is for the common good,’ he says. He also says he’d be happy to pay more tax. ‘I really would. Though I’m not super-rich,’ he adds hastily. He does, though, have a massive fortune and homes in Surrey and London. So how does this sit with his hatred of privilege and elitism? ‘It’s not a question of how much money you’ve got and how many houses,’ he insists. ‘It’s that certain people are unfairly rich and powerful and never worked for it. We should all have equal opportunities.’
But did Brian, at the last general election, do as he is now urging everyone else to do, and vote? ‘No! Oh dear. I was so busy telling everyone else to vote that I forgot myself. It’s terrible.’ He claims his oversight is what motivated him this time. ‘I’m not an apathetic man. I work night and day to change the world. But I knew I was in a safe seat [Kensington and Chelsea, which has always had a Tory MP] and I forgot. This time I will vote but I haven’t decided, yet, who for.’
Suddenly he looks a bit tired. ‘Some people think I’m very naive and maybe I am. How can I change the world in 40 days?’ But he also sees this as his responsibility.
‘I’m no Mother Teresa, but I try to make the world a better place. Perhaps this will be my work for the rest of my life. Though I’m hoping I can relax a bit after the election and spend more time with Anita, my kids and grandchildren.’
Brian May is a good, kind, clever man who, besides selling 200 million records, has dedicated much of his life to doing good, kind things. Which is, of course, admirable. But I can’t help feeling the teeniest bit sorry for poor Anita, tucked up in bed six hours before he finally turns off his computer, puts away his pie-charts and joins her.
For more information on Common Decency, visit the website.