John Bird: Forget Cummings’ blurry vision, the looming crisis is plain to see

Freedom has to be fought for. Chasing the wrong rabbit down the wrong hole undermines and besmirches it

There are many differences between now and when we last went through death so close and tragic. Now we have newspapers and TV programmes, and the ever-spreading social media. Back then, in the Second World War, we had a tight-lipped press, made tight-lipped by Churchill and his governing associates.

Churchill and his government could screw up big time: deaths in Calais and Norway, and North Africa, through poor military strategising. Deaths through poor distribution of wealth and health throughout the war, still based on class and pecking order position.

This one man – overquoted as some saviour – saved or cocked it up without the imposition of media and public scrutiny. Churchill, unlike Johnson, could hide his follies, his indecisions and his weaknesses behind censorship.

Which means, in this latest death-laden tragedy, that we’ve had virtually every little turn and mistake magnified for public consumption.

You’d have thought we’d won the war every day between 1940 and 1945, in spite of at times criminal neglect of common sense.

I was reminded of all this difference when I listened to the government’s comments on the coming recession. I asked a minister on the phone, and a minister in the virtual, Zoom-assisted House of Lords, what plans the government had for the presumed half a million people falling destitute in the coming months – a figure, a ‘guesstimate’ based on solid facts, from the District Councils’ Network. On both occasions I was told that the government was keeping an eye on the situation. ‘Keeping an eye on the situation’ seems to me like watching the walls in a dyke crack before it bursts into a full breaching.

Having been promised on a stack of political bibles that after the curfew rough sleepers would not be decanted back onto the streets, things were looking good. The provision of circa 5,000 living spaces for former street dwellers, who’d been bedding down in our linear outdoor dormitories, must be welcomed. But what, I asked, were we to do to stop a new street cohort, to prevent a new Covid-19 impoverished homelessness, from engulfing us? The signs were not, and have not been, encouraging. A grand plan was not being hiked about the place. A ‘D-Day’, so to speak, of careful utility so that people were not evicted into the nothingness of B&Bs, hostels and wretchedness.

So something really big was coming our way. Yet what did the freely available press and TV and social media do? It got a stiffy over Cummings. It took a little story that showed the ‘up tops’, as in the Second World War, are not the best users of their privilege. This little story got blasted across the media in a way that suggested we have all the time in the world to finally take the government to task for their lack of preparation for the coming eviction deluge.


Last year, 27,000 people worldwide earned an income selling street papers, making a total of £23.4 million.

So all the voices, all the platforms, all the earnest trips to the North London house of the ‘caught in the headlights’ rabbit called Cummings, with cameras and microphones, just proves how ‘failing in realism’ the so-called freedom of the press is.

The moral high ground felt pretty rank and ponged pretty smellily as we watched the outrage of the outrageable. Our moral guardians and custodians were on heat to prove the man who gave us Brexit could be got.

The big story of course, the lack of preparation of PPE, was somewhat eclipsed. The lack of intellectual preparation for the pandemic through wrongly formulated science was allowed to simmer. And the enormous story of what do we do with hundreds of thousands needing aid and help in the coming period was left to fester.

The moral high ground felt pretty rank and ponged pretty smellily as we watched the outrage of the outrageable

The government may well be working in its backrooms and corridors of power to provide us with evidence of support for Covid-inspired poverty, but as yet it has kept its cards close to its chest.

A vast, loud, shouting, screaming, belligerent, positive, optimistic, lively debate about how we stop eviction turning into dejection needs to be shouted from the rooftops! To inspire us to think and do and prepare!

So while Cummings is chased in true ‘red herring’ style, Rome burns. 

What is needed is a moratorium on evictions, coming from any quarter. I would suggest for two years, until we have the chance of restoring people to a semblance of their former stability.

Creation also of a government body to take on broken loans to keep people in their homes. And a vast job creation scheme, of untold dimensions. Work around education support, community and care support, greening, litter and cleaning programmes; and distance learning and programming skills taught freely. This is surely what must be done to make a world fit for our current and future generations

Else the human cost of allowing a family to break up and shift on to the homeless path, into B&Bs and hostels, will kill mental wellbeing, destroy individuals for a generation, and impoverish us all. 

Freedom has to be fought for. Chasing the wrong rabbit down the wrong hole undermines and besmirches it with the shit of poor thinking.

In the meanwhile, we will be making sure that The Big Issue will become the biggest ‘Clearing House’ in the UK for solutions and practices, ideas and deliveries to stop recession destroying our society. And for that we need the aid of a task-oriented press, not hypocrite-chasing moralists.

John Bird is the founder and Editor in Chief of The Big Issue

Image: Mark Thomas/Shutterstock