Magid Magid is a British-Somali political activist, former Green Party lord mayor of Sheffield and ex-MEP. Oh, and now a creative advisor to the 2022 Festival of Great Britain and Northern Ireland – or, as Jacob Rees-Mogg dubbed it, the Festival of Brexit.
The role comes as much as a surprise to him as it does to me, I suspect, as I speak to him via Zoom from his home in Sheffield – he had previously signed a petition against the festival’s establishment. But then the organisers got in touch.
“They really made a point this is not a Brexit festival, it’s not what it’s called. But everyone understands that this festival wouldn’t happen had it not been for Brexit,” explains the 31-year-old.
“So I basically had two options here: either not get involved, and not be influential in any way and shape where that money goes towards, and just sit and just moan on Twitter. Or influence where that money goes that way, because by the time they reached out to me, I can’t stop the festival that’s happening. It’s better for me to be involved and influence it than sit outside and not have any say on it whatsoever.”
It won’t, he insists, be a series of rallies compered by Jim Davidson.
“I can tell you right now – it is not a caricature of what Nigel Farage had outside parliament on the day we left the European Union,” he says. “It is nothing like that. The Tory government has got no executive decision on what the festival’s shape is or anything like that whatsoever. That for me would have been a red line.”
We’re talking on the back of the publication of Magid’s first book, The Art of Disruption, an autobiography of sorts told via a manifesto made up of a series of Instagram-friendly policies (“Be Kind, Don’t Be A P***k, Do Epic S**t”).
Somali-born Magid came to the UK as a refugee at the age of five, making an unlikely journey to becoming a Green councillor on Sheffield Council and the city’s youngest-ever lord mayor in 2018. At 28, and as a black Muslim who posed crouching in Doc Martens in his inauguration photo, he made headlines worldwide.
But not everyone was impressed. Magid’s book reprints verbatim a letter published in the Sheffield Star that month in which the writer said the position “should only be reserved to a person of white English descent and especially not a Muslim immigrant, because that is our tradition and culture which is unfortunately slowly being eroded”. The paper’s editor asked Magid before publishing and gave him a right to reply, which he did in a considerably more measured tone.
“It needed to be challenged, because sadly there are a lot of people who hold similar views,” he says.
“If I didn’t engage with it there would have been no opportunity to kind of challenge them or hold them to account. It’s nothing new, like, he didn’t say anything groundbreaking whatsoever, but it was also good to kind of shine a light and show how wrong it was as well.”
In contrast, he thinks taking on the – largely ceremonial – role showed people who previously saw politics as not for people like them that it didn’t have to be, he says.
“By virtue of me just being who I am and in that role, even if I didn’t do anything, it basically challenged the status quo and the establishment. ‘Cause sadly in politics, whether you’re a councillor, lord mayor, member of the European parliament, we’ve all been socially conditioned to expect what a politician’s meant to look like.
“And when somebody kind of comes along who doesn’t really fit that stereotype, people honestly think like: how’s that possible? Even some of my friends and people from my own community were a bit baffled – ‘how are you the mayor? How did you become the mayor?’
“Whether that be young people, women, people from the LGBT community – it’s not much represented in our politics. Look at the cabinet, for example – they all come from similar class backgrounds.”
In the Sheffield role it was his habit of not conforming to norms – in his clothing, his refusal to toast the Queen, not staying neutral on the city’s football teams (he’s a Blade) – which upset the small ‘c’ conservatives on the overwhelmingly Labour council. Eventually the press office was told not to have anything to do with his activities.
He did wonder “maybe you’re just misunderstanding the role, Magid, or maybe you’re just getting it wrong and you need to conform,” he says, but now thinks “the council, it was just a case of, like, you’re scared of change.
“Also, to be honest with you, there was kind of a power element of this. Because when you’ve got one person who can harness more media than the council’s comms team and the council put together it instantly becomes… fair enough, I might not have had direct executive powers, but in terms of soft power… for them they just really didn’t know how to deal with that.”
One person who did misunderstand the role was his mother, who told everyone that now her son was lord mayor he could solve all their problems, including increasing the minimum wage in Sheffield. “Yeah, bless her,” he laughs.
One particular stunt which caused a fuss was his announcement, while chairing a council meeting in a sombrero “in solidarity” with Mexico, that he was banning Donald Trump from the city. Although he concedes the US president, who he dubs a “wasteman”, was unlikely to swing by South Yorkshire.
“He wasn’t going to stop off in Doncaster and then Sheffield on his way to London!,” he says.
“It was a symbolic gesture, like the same way he was banning people from Muslim countries. For me it was, I guess, while the government was rolling the red carpet out for him, like, Sheffield being… it was the first city of sanctuary in the UK, we really pride ourselves being a really diverse city, I just really wanted to put that message across.
“People said that America are our strongest allies. And I completely get that – America are our friends. But if one of my mates is being an absolute p***k, I’ve still got to say to him ‘get your s**t together’, you know, I don’t want to speak to you until you sort yourself out.”
Magid’s book is overwhelmingly positive – one of his policies is “See The Good”. So I was struck by one line, that “for the vast majority of other elected officials, politics is about pursuing power and withholding it from those who are not like them”. Does he really think most politicians are in it for the wrong reasons?
“I just genuinely believe… if politicians were really there to serve the people that they’d been elected by, it’s not reflected in their policies, it’s not reflected in their actions,” he says.
“There’s one thing saying, ‘yeah, I’m basically in politics for the right reasons’ – and of course they’re all going to say that – but I can’t help but judge people, politicians on their actions.
“Even if you look at the way politicians are selected, it’s not some sort of lovely way the best person for the job gets to be a politician kind of thing. A lot of the time it’s who you know rather than basically electing the best person to be the main candidate.”
One of his other slogans which caused a stir when displayed on a poster he designed for the city’s Tramlines festival in 2018 was “Don’t Kiss A Tory”.
It’s not literal, he says. So what does it mean?
“Don’t trust a Tory,” he says.
“I’m not out there to police who people are kissing. I’m not instructive, right? I don’t know why so many people got upset with that ’cause… there’s some Tories who have found that funny. But it’s like – you could have said so much worse. In terms of Tory politicians, I 100% don’t trust a Tory politician.”
What about Tory voters, I wonder, such as those first-timers who delivered the party unlikely South Yorkshire seats such as Don Valley and Rother Valley last year. Are they not to be kissed?
“I feel like at times people are angry, and they vote Tory. But I feel like their anger’s misdirected at times,” he says.
“I think people have got a right to be angry, first and foremost. I definitely wouldn’t kind of call them dumb, but I think fundamentally people want change. And I reckon, at times, people might think that the change that they desperately want is gonna come across by voting this similar way.”
He was dismayed by last year’s Unite to Remain pact in which the Greens stood aside for the Liberal Democrats and Plaid Cymru in several constituencies, to little avail. “I just thought the entire pact was a fail, to be honest. Whether it’s reciprocated or not, at this point I just genuinely don’t care.”
By then, Magid had gone from Sheffield to Brussels. Having been selected top of the Greens’ list for Yorkshire and the Humber in 2019, he was among seven Green MEPs elected as the party more than doubled their total, but served just under seven months before the UK left the EU.
A self-described “proud Europhile”, he is not uncritical, particularly around migrant policy – he has called on the EU to resettle more – and accountability (“things are kind of done in the background”, he says, and thinks the Commission president should be directly elected).
Speaking of directly elected leaders… chances are you missed it, but this summer the Greens held their biennial elections for leader and deputy leader. Which begs the question: why hasn’t Magid stood? He certainly has a higher profile and presence than the party’s current joint leaders (Jonathan Bartley and Siân Berry, since you ask).
“I was massively encouraged from a lot of people to actually stand for the leadership. It just wasn’t something I
was interested in at the time. I guess I just wanted to pursue other things. It wasn’t something I wanted to do, in all honesty.”
It’s interesting, I say, that throughout the interview he refers to the party as “they” rather than “we”. He laughs.
“Do you know what’s really interesting? I actually joined the Green Party not because of the environment, [but] mainly for the social policies than anything else.
“In terms of party politics… I’ve slowly started to realise that party politics isn’t the only way to bring about change. So in terms of, would I ever be a candidate to be an MP? Never say never… I’ve got no ambitions of being in party politics, put it that way.” He’s still a member.
One question he is asked, which he says in his book that he hates, is “what do you do?”. But it is inevitable, since he left Brussels for the final time earlier this year, to wonder how he now describes himself.
“Good question,” he says. “I still kind of struggle with this.” He’s writing and is involved in local activism in Sheffield along with working with the alternative University of the Underground in Amsterdam and two climate projects.
And in the spirit of his optimism, in the face of continent-wide whack-a-mole lockdowns and quarantines, he’s spending four months on a tour of Europe from the start of November.
“I’m working from home anyway,” he says. “The worst that can happen is that I get stuck in Belarus for two weeks.”
The Art of Disruption: A Manifesto for Real Change is published by 535, priced £14.99