John Bird: After Brexit, the face of consumerism must change to fight poverty

Trade has changed beyond measure in the years since the UK entered Europe. It will change again when we leave. It's a chance to make it a weapon against poverty

I was asked by a journalist last week to describe the biggest change in my life. I wracked my brain and had to come up with something dynamic. So I decided to alight on the dynamic of shopping.

When we entered Europe in 1973 at the behest of a majority of MPs and led by Prime Minister Edward Heath I lived in a shared house in Paddington Green. I was a printer. I had begun to turn my life around. My wages were £23 per week. If you went into one of the then-smaller supermarkets you might encounter 30 different cheeses. Or maybe 20 different kinds of wines.

This was an increase and change from the mid 1960s when if you went into most restaurants and asked for wine the toss-up was between red and white. And there were even fewer supermarkets of modest size, and even fewer cheeses.

Now in my local supermarket there are hundreds of bottles of wine to choose from, and hundreds of cheeses. Things that didn’t exist, the range in choice from toilet paper to toilet cleaners to breakfast cereals has quadrupled; we are now living in a different, hot, heated up, over-geared economy. A globalised economy.

The year 1973 was a bad time for US international policy and they were suffering the humiliation of having thrown the biggest amount of bombs and bullets at any one country – North Vietnam – they were about to be finally forced to leave South Vietnam.

It would be better if we had another war in order to enable us to reinvent new means of business and trade that will enrich us all. A war on poverty.

This was followed by the largest expansion of consumer goods, the arrival of the American high street out into the world – McDonald’s from wall to wall – and the growth of debt.

Highly geared, over-stretched, the UK became a tame America in all but name. But this was against a background of strikes and class struggle that mixed a new consumer confidence with dead bodies not being able to be buried because of striking grave diggers, and rubbish piling up on streets because council workers were also on strike.

The Vietnam war had modernised shifting cargoes around the globe. Taking a modest little thing invented in the US called a container, a big steel box, and creating roll-on and roll-off ships, you could move more goods and deliver easier than ever before.

You didn’t need city ports with hundreds of workers emptying ships with cranes hauling bit by bit. You could reduce the whole process to a few giant cranes and speed up the time while reducing the cost.

By this time I was printing papers for a cargo magazine and in the late 1970s I was overwhelmed with the prophecies predicted for world trade simply by that big steel box. And the fact that trucks were also redesigned that could pick up a container and operating on a ‘just-in-time’ logistics system could speed all of these goods just in time for you to pick off of your supermarket shelf, now increasing in size to fulfil your increasing needs.

Enormous fridges started to appear on our highways, with trucks converted into carriers of fresh flowers, meat, and of course cheeses, with their frozen, sealed backs. War had changed us once again. And with it more credit and more shopping, and more sophistication of needs and tastes to match.

And then the 1980s and Thatcher puts the last brick in the wall for this marketplace-driven world by tearing the top off of the old industries, dependent on government subsidy, and bang goes mass steel, coal, ship-building, cars and heavy engineering. And bang goes collective bargaining and mass membership of trade unions that conflicted not just with the interests of the employers but also of many consumers who worked as part of the increasing service-based, office-based not factory-based workforce.

Now if you want to see large amounts of workers working away go to your shopping malls, or to Hinckley in the Midlands to see Amazon workers scurrying and rushing to deliver in a factory on the site of a redundant coal mine.

What a cacophonic world we have entered. None of the simple, limited consumerism of 44 years ago when we were finally allowed to join the club; a club that was intent on protecting Europe at the cost of all others.

I then described to the journalist my belief that even if we don’t want to leave Europe we are destined to. And that it would be better if we had another war in order to enable us to reinvent new means of business and trade that will enrich us all. He asked, “A war? Are you advocating a real war?” I said yes, against poverty. Declare war on poverty. Spend trillions on it. We only finally paid off the Second World War when I was 61, so why not borrow big time and run into enormous debt and use the money to totally change the UK? For the better.

He left happily confused.