Who could not be lifted by the sight of flowering suitcases on the street?
Last week, as the contest to become the new leader of the government began, I met an MP who told me of her choice. She was going to vote for ____ because she believed that ____ had all the signs of common sense, honesty, integrity, commitment, diligence, etc, that you would expect from a leaderly prime minister. She waited for my view of ____ as the best of all candidates.
But I was not to be drawn. Standing outside Parliament I gave her a few bon mots to be going on with:
“Get your candidate to not come up with a wide host of solutions,” I said. “Make sure they don’t promise the earth and deliver a flowerpot.”
“Unfortunately,” I continued, “every PM I have ever known or had dealings with as often or not doesn’t even give us the flowerpot.”
She looked mystified. I explained that every government loves their own solutions, no one else’s and they always end up on the cutting-room floor of Big Government. They talk about creating small government but it becomes bigger in the wrong misshapen areas. And solutions don’t get people out of poverty. They keep people slightly provided for on the edge of need. We parted company wishing each other good luck. And I went off for an interview.
It must seem ridiculous for someone like me, who has been working on homelessness and poverty, and its eradication, for 30 years with The Big Issue, to not ask for solutions. For surely we need solutions to the big problems that fox and dog us at every turn of the road.
The inflation rate goes up and it severely hits a whole slew of the low waged, those on benefits, and those that are on pensions that barely cover their daily needs. Surely, runs the argument, the best candidate would come dripping with solutions. Would be loaded down with bright-eyed, bright-minded, thought-bulging initiatives that as soon as they are applied are like a balm to a troubled body.
The unfortunate thing is that most proffered solutions are a cover for carrying on and doing the same; and more and more of the same. Every government leaves office, for whatever reason, frustrated and somewhat guilty that they did not get to the solutions that they thought were the biggest pieces in their political armoury.
In post-government life they write books and give lectures about the limitations of government, and how if they had been given free rein they may well have eliminated poverty, turned the UK into a high-wage, high-education economy, reduced crime and brought tranquillity to the land.
But, unfortunately, the offices of government don’t work well enough to deliver on solutions and promises. A complete overhaul on budgeting and allocation of funds to actually prevent the vast monies being used in keeping people in poverty. So the budgeting doesn’t go towards getting rid of poverty but maintaining people in it.
I had walked to Parliament from Kings Cross station, which is a good 45-minute walk. It was a swelteringly hot day, with the heat making me dislike summer and reflect on climate change. There was a time in the 1970s, when we first started hearing big stories about climate change, that imagined pictures of a frozen-over Trafalgar Square circulated. We were going to have an ice age. That suited me as I love to be cold rather than hot. So if you are choosing your climatic decline my choice would side on a new ice age than a Sahara-isation of the world.
As I walked past Seven Dials, once a notorious den of iniquity, a rookery of thieves and cutthroats – now a bourgeois world of consumer plenty – I spotted a few old suitcases. They were laid on the pavement beside a hotel and they were converted to a small flower box. I stood and looked and was transfixed at this micro world of flowers and earth, in the hot arid streets of Covent Garden. Where tourists and visitors flock and roam, looking for some fine new purchase that will sort out their needs for perfume, clothes or coffee.
I could not but feel happy and upbeat about such a clever use of a pile of old suitcases. Could not but feel a certain poetic spring to my step as I walked on.
And then 20 minutes later I faced the contest following the fall of Boris Johnson, presumably into the post-government world of book writing and lecture tours; where all of the riddles of his leadership will be solved for the audiences and readers he encounters. The genius that humanity carries around within its circumference is to be lauded. I saw the little flower bed as a symbol of that cleverness. But when it comes to thinking our way out of crisis and poverty and poor wages and inadequate health provision – we balk. Until we actually grasp the fact that for all the initiatives and astuteness and creative moments we are at sea with ending poverty and need, then we are lost.
I believe we can dismantle poverty, and not simply keep the poor ticking over, in need, vulnerable to inflationary changes. But government needs tearing down with its slum landlord kind of thinking; just about keeping the roof on things. I don’t suppose the new leader of the government ruling party will break the mould. That’s why we all need to be ever more diligent in our pursuit of the ending of poverty and not simply its temporary relief.
John Bird is the founder and editor in chief of The Big Issue. Read more of his words here.
When most people think about the Big Issue, they think of vendors selling the Big Issue magazines on the streets – and we are immensely proud of this. In 2022 alone, we worked with 10% more vendors and these vendors earned £3.76 million in collective income. There is much more to the work we do at the Big Issue Group, our mission is to create innovative solutions through enterprise to unlock opportunity for the 14million people in the UK living in poverty.