John Bird: There is no use in looking to Davos for leadership

Only by coming together in communities will we heal the devastation left by Brexit

A recent attendee at Davos, oft described as the sublimely self-indulgent beanfeast for among others the obscenely wealthy of the world, wondered about two things: if the really wealthy just paid their taxes rather than tax-avoid then there would be no need to have beanfeasts about philanthropy and all that stuff.

And, why were 1,500 private jets flying into Davos to be the audience for David Attenborough’s talk about climate change and human-caused disaster?

I have never been invited to Davos. But some bloke who helped me set up The Big Issue Mark 3 was invited. How do you get on the list for these blowouts? Where everyone must be viewed as important, else no invite.

Of course the real problem is leadership. Or so it would seem. You have the leaders in the world and the led in the world. But is that healthy? Is it a good enough system where the great and the good get on a stage and tell you, the public, what to think and where to act?

I am a part of that system. Even if invites to private audiences with Richard Branson, to TED talks and to Davos have yet to land on my desk. But I do get to tell the world how to improve itself and it’s a system I increasingly abhor.

Why? Brexit. Brexit screwed it for me; or got me to question the whole edifice of others making decisions for others. Previously I felt that because I had climbed up from Poverty to Purpose, I was a leader. But in fact I was a leader in my own life, and I was an example that could be imitated, but that’s all. People have to take a lead in their own lives and I was a disastrous human being who had used disaster to my advantage.


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So you also, if down and despondent, could have a go. Pulling yourself up by the bootstraps, it’s called.

Brexit though seemed a place to dump that old model. Because all the arguments seemed to be about people being misled. Of course the Leavers did not see it that way, because they thought it was a simple case of first past the post.

Many Remainers though were appalled that their fellow voters were what they saw as ‘seriously misled’. And as it was only Remainers who questioned the legitimacy of the vote, they questioned too the leadership that led people to reject membership of Europe. And I would say raised the interesting argument that we may have to do a bit more leading; not leaving decisions to others.

Straddling both Leavers and Remainers like many of us is an odd place to be, but it should give you insight. I voted to remain but then ran into a fusillade of anger and hatred directed at those who voted to leave. I was appalled and have remained appalled that there was so much bile dumped on these ‘inferior’ people.

And the bile came from the mouths of people who previously I had known as reasonable, who acted kindly towards others.

It seemed to me we had left too much to our leaders on both sides of the fence. Both sets of leaders seemed compromised by the result. One lot for exaggerating the joys of leaving; and the other lot believing in some God-given, old Etonian concept of assuredness and inevitable victory.

Too much of our future seemed tied up in despicable leaders. Too much of our prosperity seemed to be decided by crap thinkers who either promised the earth or promised victory.

And actually if you project beyond our present crisis, to wars and former crises, it is obvious that destructive leaders led us into the quagmire of our current political landscape: warts and all.

It is possibly a good time now to break out of ‘the led and the leaders’ when they do such an appallingly inadequate job

Why, for instance, has our leadership since entering the Common Market not concentrated on making the UK a unified society? Why have the 43 years between our joining and our voting to leave not seen a stitching together of our communities? Why in that time has London become a part of Europe in look and feel and wealth while great swathes of the depleted former industrial world have been left outside?

Apparently the most consistent group of Leavers were older homeowners from the South; not necessarily the poor North where turnout was low. But why were they left out of the leadership’s equation, so that they could seek exit and pain?

I had never heard about Davos until I read a story of pre-war Davos. One day in 1936 a Jewish medical student so appalled at antisemitism in the Germanic world went to Davos and shot dead the Swiss version of Adolf Hitler. That is all I ever knew about Davos, a million miles from the fatted calves of post-war wealth that clutter up the place with their diamond-studded lives.

But it is possibly a good time now to break out of ‘the led and the leaders’ when they do such an appallingly inadequate job.

I think the current system stinks. We need, all of us, to get our heads together on this: stitching together our communities by our own efforts is the key.