The Big Issue was born of contrary thinking. When everybody told John Bird and Gordon Roddick it wouldn’t work, they pushed ahead. They created a revolutionary magazine that changed ideas of what homeless people could achieve, and how they could remove themselves from their situation. As we head into our 29th year of existence, we continue to challenge orthodoxy.
Like you, I read Dominic Cummings’ job ad/cri de coeur with a mixture of interest and confusion. It was interesting because he is somewhere between puppet master and kingmaker. He’s a policy wonk who gets very turned on by the high-falutin chat of futurology. He clearly has the ear of Boris Johnson and, given that he delivered Brexit and a massive majority for Johnson, he has been rewarded with the keys to the playroom, for now at least.
These are the people. These are the fighters for a better tomorrow
On the face of it, there is nothing wrong with his desire to shake up the establishment forces at the apex of power (his words). Doing something repeatedly just because that is the way it has always been done is not a productive way forward. Inviting new thinking is a welcome change. But there are a few problems. The first is that while Cummings says he wants outsiders and weirdos, he’s asking for people from the very best universities. Which is what the high ranks of the civil service looked for anyway. And there is also something of the deification of Silicon Valley thinking to it all. Clearly, this is welcomed by some people. But it leads down cul-de-sacs, where the thoughts of the hugely wealthy are taken seriously, because they’re hugely wealthy and because they have a tech element to them. It is top-line exciting, but lacks actual depth and results.
None of it strikes at the heart of the systemic problems blighting Britain – those around poverty, around opportunity, around wealth generation and a shared sense of belonging. It doesn’t feel like it wants to get its hands dirty.
The Big Issue has inspired the launch of 120 street papers globally, including sister titles in Australia, South Africa, Japan, Taiwan and Korea.
Some months ago, The Big Issue hosted an event in Northampton celebrating the organisations in the local area, whether voluntary, business, charity or third sector, who were working to serve the community. Where there was a local authority teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, it was these small operations, in some cases one-man bands, who were stepping in and stepping up. Need became the mother of invention. Some of the good ideas led to expanding businesses: like The Good Loaf, a bakery set up to offer employment opportunities to vulnerable local women. They realised they could grow and when the local hospital tendered for bread supply, they made their pitch and won.
The success of the Northampton event, which has led to ongoing links between organisations, illustrated what we had long held as true. The nation is filled with great people and organisations, the soul of local communities. They are keeping things going when traditional funding, including that from local and national government, has been pulled. We wanted to find a way to celebrate them, so we launched the Changemakers page in this magazine. This grew to become our annual Top 100 Changemakers list, for those thinkers, creators and agitators who are doing incredible things, frequently under the radar. We are delighted to publish our second annual list this week.
And I say to Dominic Cummings, if you’re really serious in your desire to change thinking about propelling Britain forward, rather than your rather obvious cant about looking for outsiders and weirdos, be genuinely contrary. Come to The Big Issue and take a look at our righteous 100. These are the people. These are the fighters for a better tomorrow. In many cases, they’re having to rebuild after years of austerity. But they are unbowed. Take a look, Dominic.
Paul McNamee is editor of The Big Issue