The Daily Telegraph published a very good article on how individuals like Robert Aquilina are using the term “Fascist” to destroy other people’s careers. Winston Marshall was called a Fascist by individuals, the like of Robert Aquilina, for speaking the truth about the Left political agenda.
‘Quitting Mumford & Sons let me keep my integrity, my dignity and my soul’
Called a fascist for supporting a controversial author, Winston Marshall sacrificed his music career – but says he made the right choice
ByZoe Strimpel23 October 2022 • 7:00am
Sixteen months ago Winston Marshall walked away from one of the world’s biggest bands. But today, when we meet for lunch at Blanchette, a French restaurant in Soho, the former banjo player and lead guitarist of Mumford & Sons seems remarkably perky. The 34-year-old bounds in dressed in a sharp black suit, holding a briefcase and a book, The Wind In My Hair, a memoir of a childhood in Iran by Masih Alinejad, the next interviewee for his Spectator podcast, Marshall Matters.
“This is very nice,” he says, as he looks around the room through a pair of 1970s-style hipster specs. As the son of Sabina, a French-Hungarian Jew, and Tory donor and Brexiteer Sir Paul Marshall, chairman of the hedge fund Marshall Wace, he has a considerably more interesting background than your average rock star. But it’s not just his parents, or the fact that Mumford & Sons won two Grammies and two Brits. It’s the fallout from a tweet he posted in March 2021, commending a book entitled Unmasked: Inside Antifa’s Radical Plan to Destroy Democracy by Andy Ngo. “Congratulations @MrAndyNgo. Finally had time to read your important book. You’re a brave man,” wrote Marshall. Ngo is a controversial figure who has spent the last few years documenting the work of Antifa (as in “antifascism”), far-Left activists in Portland, Oregon.
A hero to many on the Right, Ngo has also been accused of provoking some of the violence he films and of other practices such as “doxxing” – posting online the addresses and personal information of his far-Left foes.
The moment Marshall tweeted, all hell broke loose. Turned on by friends and musicians as well as vast Twitter armies, he was called a fascist and a Nazi (by comedian Nish Kumar), with the band inundated by demands to “fire the fascist”. He was eventually forced, he tells me, to “highlight” the fact that he had Jewish family members murdered by actual fascists in the 1940s. Within days of the Tweet, he issued an apology for the “pain” he had caused and promised to take some time away to examine his “blind spots”. So far so familiar: an outbreak of wrongthink followed by punishment of the perpetrator and then grovelling repentance.
But then Marshall deviated from the script. Over the next three months he mulled, eventually deciding that it hadn’t been a blind spot to praise Ngo. That indeed the point wasn’t about Ngo at all, but about the fact that a matter of truth was at stake. By sticking by his apology and remaining in the band, he realised he would be “spreading the lie, that what I actually thought was that violent extremism was good. Ngo’s book documents 19 deaths in the first 14 days of the Black Lives Matter riots. I don’t think those things are OK and I will stand by that.
“When I published my apology I was open to being wrong, but the more I researched, the more I felt compelled that I wasn’t wrong, and all the things that were said about the author I think are lies. They were said about me, and I thought, well this is f—— b—-. Then Ngo was attacked [the author was chased and beaten by some Leftist marchers at a George Floyd anniversary rally] and my conscience blew up.
“I could have stayed in the band but now I look back and I think actually I couldn’t have stayed. The other option was to give up what I love and what I’ve built my entire adult life on, but keep my integrity, my dignity and most importantly my soul and so, looking back, it was a terrible time, it was horrible, but I made the right decision for me.”
Marshall “explained to the band my predicament and decision. After a few days of conversation there were no great objections, so I published my letter” [on the blog website Medium].
“So,” I ask. “No regrets now?”
“What’s the point?” he replies curtly. “It was horrible but… I made the right decision.” It’s hard to believe, though, that his decision had no impact on his friendship with his former bandmates. So far he has given only boilerplate responses, and today, even when pushed, all he will say, with a twinkle, is: “I wish them well.” But it seems safe to infer that those relationships remain another casualty of The Tweet. Other friends, however, surprised him: “Some people who I thought were very close were not and some people who were not really turned up. My friends, I know who they are [now].” He won’t divulge who, apart from those who stood up for him publicly: Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Maajid Nawaz, Benedict Rogers.
While Marshall was processing all this, he was also dealing with the aftermath of a divorce in 2020 from Glee actress Dianna Agron after almost four years of marriage. “I started journalling… both because I wanted to remember exactly what was happening and because,” he says, “I am not getting divorced again. It’s a horrible experience.”
If “journalling” has the slightly painful ring of the Sloane Ranger on a gap year, then Marshall’s spin is, as ever, charmingly different; he was inspired by reading the diary of Samuel Pepys during Covid “because in 1665 there was the plague… I thought ‘oh this is kind of fun’ and then it turned into all the mess of last year… and now this new life that I’m trying to build.”
He says he will always make music, but that since leaving the band, “those doors got harder and harder to open.” Instead, he says, a new one opened, and “so I’m going to f—— walk through it”.
As well as his podcast, where he interviews those making a stand against “woke” orthodoxy, Marshall is now a regular on the free speech circuit. Last weekend he was at his first Battle of Ideas, the conference run by Brexiteer and broadcaster Claire Fox and the Institute of Ideas. Of his new career: “I love the intellectual stimulation of my new work. And to have found people with whom I can speak freely, even when we don’t agree.”
He also now merrily – and freely – tweets in support of controversial people and topics, including JK Rowling and other “gender critical” feminists, and Jordan Peterson, who means a great deal to him “because he managed to reconcile science and religion”. He has no truck with the idea of “toxic masculinity”, which Peterson has been accused of encouraging? “I think that there’s such a thing as toxic femininity as well,” Marshall shoots back, “but I don’t think everyone is toxic.”
Marshall is too energetic to remain an armchair culture warrior though. One of his projects is Hong Kong Link Up, which he co-founded, and which pairs HK refugees with Brits to help the former integrate in the UK. He followed the democracy movement in 2020-2021 as China cracked down on the territory’s freedoms. “I thought it was great, and it would be brilliant to have them here.” He began meeting the first wave of exiles, along with people like Benedict Rogers, who runs Hong Kong Watch.
“As time went on,” says Marshall, “there was no government programme being set up for assimilation. I thought, that could be several millions of people coming here and no one is talking about how they’re going to integrate…so I thought ‘f— it I’ll do it then’.
“Working with a couple of Hong Kongers we put this thing together and it’s wonderful how it’s evolved. Then we started pairing Hong Kongers with Ukrainians, which was lovely because I now have Hong Kong running a programme to help Ukrainians come over.” They’re now partnering with Citizens UK to get more Ukrainians paired with Hong Kongers.
Indeed, of all his political passions, Marshall is most impressive on China, sharply observing the relative disinterest progressives – normally hawk-eyed about Islamophobia – have in China’s human rights abuses, particularly of the Muslim Uyghurs.
“I remember in the summer of 2020 going on a week of protests in Parliament Square against the abuses of the Uyghurs, and there were about 25 of us. This is the biggest internment of humans, between one and three million. At the same time, there were the BLM riots. This isn’t a comment on those riots, but an observation about how that moment captured the imagination of so many and this moment [the Uyghurs] captured the imagination of so few.”
A few weeks ago, Marshall wrote me a message on Twitter, saying, intriguingly, that he was in Iraq, but didn’t elaborate. Today he tells me that Emma (Baroness) Nicholson, the founder of Amar, a charity set up to help the victims of Saddam Hussein, asked him to work on “a couple of different humanitarian things. We ended up out there trying to help the Yazidis in Kurdistan, visiting girls in the Dhanke IDP camp and meeting with the organisers of a music programme. And then I was like, ‘Well, I’m in the area. I’ll go to Baghdad for a jolly’.” A burst of impish laughter.
And then he tells me about going to Babylon and Ur, four hours’ drive from Baghdad. “Abraham was from Ur. The garden of Eden was supposed to be there. And in Babylon, which is where the Scripture is written, it’s the same dust, and there’s literally dunes of pottery. It was unbelievable. The whole time I was there, I was the only non-Iraqi.” He says he felt safe, but admits “I’ve been told I’m an idiot” for bumbling into one of the most dangerous countries on earth.
But large swathes of his mother’s family, which originated in Hungary, were wiped out in the Holocaust, and though a Christian, he is also a defender of Jews and, very unusually for a musician, many of whom refuse to perform there, of Israel.
“The Israel-Palestine thing is just… how one-sided,” he says, reflecting on the Left’s lopsided fixations. “The Uyghurs are Muslims, so where’s the f— outrage? I got caught up in a Palestine march in Piccadilly recently and I thought, where the f— were you in the Uyghur protest? I am sympathetic to the Palestinian plight,” he adds. “I’m a two-or-three state solution kind of guy. I very much believe that there should be an Israel; in another spin I could have ended up being Israeli, my great-grandfather ended up going to Israel in 1941.”
It’s hard to believe, given that at the peak of Marshall’s career he was being flown around the world business class in a boozy “swirl”, playing in venues like New York’s Madison Square Garden and headlining Glastonbury that he seems so down-to earth, and so, well, normal.
But as he discovered all too painfully, the relentless rhythm of all this made it “very difficult” to have relationships. Was this because of the travel or because people were throwing themselves at him? “Because of the travel,” he says, laughing that he “never had a problem” with the other thing, redirecting me back to his worst-dressed accolade – in 2012 GQ called him the sixth worst-dressed man of the year.
He talks about the incredible pressure of his old life, of keeping a business [the band] together while “wobbling down the road with 150 people and 30 lorries”, how “you’re in and out of public speculation along the way. So, yeah, it’s a high-stakes, a high-stress job for sure.
“Well,” he adds, looking wistful, “it becomes one. In the beginning it was just fun.”
I ask him whether his affluent childhood prepared him in any way for his luxurious, if hectic, life as a rock star. After all, his family was wealthy – Paul Marshall set up Marshall Wace in 1997 with a big investment from George Soros; by 2020, the Sunday Times rich list said Marshall Sr was worth £630 million. Was he given big wads of pocket money?
“Oh absolutely not,” says Marshall. “He was very strict on that. I made my own money. When we started the band [in 2007] to make money, I worked in my mum’s [antiques] shop in Fulham to pay for it. I worked on a building site in Royal Oak. The hardest job was [being] a rickshaw driver around Soho, I was f—— rubbish at it, I was so unfit. That’s a really hard job. If you ever take a rickshaw, be sure to tip.”
Marshall is his dad’s “biggest fan” though not his acolyte: his father gave £100,000 to the Vote Leave campaign, while Marshall Jr tells me he spoilt his Brexit ballot and is now a member of the SDP “because I am interested by their ideas”.
It wasn’t all hard labour though. Marshall attended St Paul’s, one of the most prestigious and expensive private schools in Britain, and says “there were plenty of spoilt brats”. He may not have been one, but critics nonetheless mocked Mumford & Sons as a posho enterprise of privileged white men. Did that bother him?
“Nah,” he says. “It’s about the music. Keep in mind, the Arctic Monkeys, they’re four millionaires. Sure they came from a working-class background but they are uber-elite people. People don’t care about how much money bands have. Either the music is good or it’s not good. It’s that simple.”
Despite the wrench of walking away from the life of a rock star, in fact he says: “I like myself a lot more now. You see these people who become successful at age 20, they get frozen
in time as that person and don’t necessarily evolve with all the difficulties and tribulations of life to keep them rooted. Does that make sense?”
I say it does. Earlier he’d said that “one of the blessings of the whole experience has been to see that, [as in] Scripture, the temple comes down and the Lord rebuilds the temple again… and it did feel like that [for me]; some of the foundation stones that were left were not the ones that were there in the first place.” But, he says, they’re the right ones for him now.
There are, in Marshall’s reckoning, also new foundation stones appearing across the arts; he surprises me by saying, as he argued at the Battle of Ideas, that cancel culture hasn’t just dulled art, as he has argued previously, but “will make greater artists”.
He cites Hemingway’s assertion that Dostoevsky’s art was fired by his time in Siberia. He points to choreographer Rosie Kay, who resigned from her own dance company after dancers launched an investigation into her views on gender; Kay has now set up a new company called K2CO that is creating new shows, like Orlando, based on Virginia Woolf’s novel about a nobleman who morphs into a woman, with a female lead.
Comedy is full of examples. There’s Shane Gillis, an American comedian sacked from Saturday Night Live for alleged racism, who “is now really successful because he’s going it alone”, and the likes of comedians Francis Foster and Konstantin Kisin who “had their own cancel experiences within comedy” but now have their own popular YouTube channel.
“They’re the punks. Cancel culture only kills the arts if the arts let it kill them.”
What about him and the arts? “I can make music and am still making music,” he says. “Music is in my bones. I will always make music. But it’s much harder to get the big record labels on side because I’m too much of a risk and it’s actually a very small industry.”
What he’s working on now, though, brings together “the music side and intellectual explorations”. Though he won’t specify, he says he’s “done some stuff that’s pretty cool. We’ll see, hopefully we can do this interview again in a year and there’ll be three albums.”
Given his new career path, would he ever consider actually going into politics himself? He doesn’t rule it out. “I’m certainly interested in politics. I don’t know what to do with that interest necessarily.” He considers. “The only reason to go into politics is to serve. I like the idea of serving but… I feel like I can make more of a difference outside in the real world – setting up new businesses, new institutions, doing humanitarian work. I feel like that’s making a bigger impact. And so whatever’s going to get the best results will be my priority. If I feel one day that it would be through politics, I would do that.”
Given how badly our politics needs fresh talent, this could well be the next door that opens.