Opinion

John Bird: The time is right for a new-ism

"I shall return to this new -ism with thoughtfulness, and an awareness that we may well have put the wrong ingredients into our current lumpy cake"

John Bird

As a one-time follower of the two major ‘-isms’ that critiqued the big -ism, capitalism, you’d think I would have had enough of -ismism. That I would never embrace another -ism for the rest of my life. And yet here I write, sitting in the early morning in an Oxford hotel, having the night before entertained and informed its students; an essential duality if you’re going to be useful – and coming up with a new -ism.

I could be bold, rude and self-seeking and call my new -ism ‘Birdism’, but I’m aware that too many might rename it ‘Turdism’. And, whereas Marxism was named after Marx (just 200 years old a few weeks back), what a presumptuous little turd I would be for appending a movement to my name. No, my new -ism is grander and more graspable as a descriptive -ism that, as soon as you hear it, you might just find yourself saying “by the wand of Harry Potter, this makes supreme sense!”

Anita Roddick, John Bird, Shelter director Sheila McKechnie and Gordon Roddick launch the first Big Issue magazine in 1991
Left to right: Anita Roddick, John Bird, Shelter director Sheila McKechnie and Gordon Roddick launch the first Big Issue in 1991

I was in Oxford visiting its university with John Gilligan, who runs the finance lab at Saïd Business School. We gave a lecture on the founding of The Big Issue and how (at a year old), it was both extremely popular and extremely costly to Gordon Roddick, the co-founder of The Body Shop. For it was Gordon who put the money up for me to start our global street paper empire, which started life on the double yellow lines of London’s West End. Faced with his ultimatum – “sort it out and break even within three months, or it’s goodbye, Big Issue”– I then appeared from a dark corner of the lecture theatre and told them what I did.

John and I have given this lecture three times now, and will do it many more times for students who want to listen to a vigorous social enterprise story. Students listen, and – hopefully – learn that the smelly stuff nearly hit the fan on too many occasions. That it was all rather mad. That we got through by the skin of our teeth. And that I was like a bear with a sore head, combined with a rabbit caught between the headlights! How one can be both beggars belief, but I managed this strange combo quite skilfully (and only let the rabbit out when I was alone).

There is no shortage in the world of students who wish to topple ignorance, short-termism and small-mindedness. The problem they often run into is that they don’t get to embrace contradiction. They get cleaned-up examples of businesses, social businesses and charities that are made to appear pristine. And so I spend my time describing my rescue plan, emphasising the (at times) silliness, waste and deeply marred situation we were in.

We got out through a simple five-point exercise plan that I drew up in the car on the way back from Gordon’s decisive meeting. Clarity in the face of madness, you might call it. For The Big Issue was madly popular and madly expensive, and was absolutely haemorrhaging money in those early days. But we got it right and, three months later, were in a small profit and have kept our heads above water ever since. We have expanded into other countries (the International Network of Street Papers now supports over 100 titles worldwide) and we created a very large investment business, Big Issue Invest, out of something that once looked remarkably crazy. And me, the maddest player in the pile.

I woke the next morning thinking about my new -ism. Going by coach from Cambridge to Oxford, I had sent an email to a history student who I’d talked to fleetingly a few months before. The student wrote to me. And I replied, saying that I wanted history in The Big Issue because we all need to know where we came from and where we are going. I said, “We need history. But not as things in themselves. Not just as dead dates. We need history as ingredients in our understanding of why we have the problems of today.”

My view is that unless we know the ingredients of the cake, we have no reference points for understanding the current political problems we face; including the big one, Brexit. And so my new -ism is ‘Ingredientism’. What is it that makes up our weird world; a world that seems to be the result of the laws of unintended consequences? We need to understand that though poverty, climate change and war may seem unintended, they’ve grown out of the ingredients with which we made the cake.

I shall return to this new -ism with thoughtfulness, and an awareness that we may well have put the wrong ingredients into our current lumpy cake. And in future, make sure that the right ingredients are used for tomorrow’s much more appetising, and much better cake.

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