Opinion

John Bird: Westminster attack shows prevention is key

"I joined PC Keith Palmer at Parliament a year ago. I was one of the people he was trying to keep safe"

At strange times I miss my father, although he has not been with us for 34 years. Especially when at Westminster Bridge and Parliament last week murder struck. He had this habit of describing even grown men as children. When someone died he would always say something like ‘poor child’. I found myself thinking of PC Keith Palmer as a poor child who had been struck down in his prime. A father and husband, and a mate of many.

And the injuries and deaths of the innocent strolling people who were simply crossing a bridge. And when you look at the casualty list you can’t help feeling that the world was crossing that bridge on that day. And were killed or injured for it.

Keith Palmer was a working man working his shift at keeping Parliament safe for all. The fact that he gave his life for that is a tragedy that should never have happened. And we seriously need to look into that event to learn why such a highly venerable target as the Parliamentary estate was vulnerable at the point where Keith stood sentinel.

I joined Keith on the parliamentary estate over a year ago, so I was one of the people he was trying to keep safe. I would have spoken to him the day before the event because I left through that exit. But I did not know him. He made an investment in me and the many others like me who come and go through what has been called “the mother of all parliaments”. And that investment cost him his life.

The clock was ticking and I did not know, nor did any of us working in Parliament.

Times have changed and my father would have been the first to remind me of that. He as a boy would get the bus and get off at Parliament before the war, just to look at it. He never quite understood it. He lived in a slum and had a dead father and poverty surrounding him; and a mum who had four jobs to keep the boys alive.

Thirty years later I would skip off school and get the bus to go and stand and look at Parliament and wonder at what it was and what it meant. Later I ended up washing up in it. And even later, much later, as a member of the House of Lords. As a part of that estate.

My father was aware that British democracy was a bit like a Swiss cheese, with many holes in it. He lived and breathed that unevenness, that ugly lopsided side of it. Yet I hope he would have understood that the reason I went in was to change that democracy as radically, as fundamentally as I could. To help dismantle the poverty he and I were born into.

And that Keith Palmer did his best to protect our experiment in doing a better job next time.

An officer lays flowers next to a photo of PC Keith Palmer

My father would always be up for telling you what job he was working at. We lived a few miles from Westminster proper, although both of us were born in its poor western parts; the slums of Notting Hill and Bayswater. And his job was to move around the capital, sometimes putting in windows in Old Scotland Yard opposite Parliament. Or doing roofs or shop-fitting a stone’s throw from Buckingham Palace. His stories created a fascination for me for this important centre of the British Empire. And that this big empire, renamed a commonwealth, had its epicentre up the road from where dad and I were born.

The day before the tragedy struck I went to see Theresa May. I went to talk about what the PM had written in The Big Issue: that she was going to make prevention the very centre of her government’s thinking.

That she was going to put time, effort, resources into putting a fence – so to speak – at the top of the cliff, so you did not have to have ambulances at the bottom. That the government would look at anything that helped prevent poverty forming, so that you then did not have to be too ingenious in unravelling it later.

I have tried to work with every government since the formation of The Big Issue. I have seen brilliant initiatives come and go, renamed and moved and created departments, projects taken up and trumpeted for a week, a month, a year; and then parked up. Warehoused like we warehouse most of our poor.

I told the PM that governments always think they are doing the right thing but not recognising we fail 30 per cent of our children at school, and that they become the bedrock of much poverty, crime and disorder.

Big Issue founder John Bird is inducted into the House of Lords in February 2016

The clock was ticking and I did not know, nor did any of us working in Parliament. A day later the tragedy struck. And the luckless visitors to London who only came to look at the mother of all parliaments but ended up dead or injured; and Keith Palmer went on his last shift; all this was about to happen.

Draining the swamp, driving out the uglinesses of poverty and empty lives, the alienating effects of much of modern life that drives a grown man to want to kill and maim and be killed himself; these have to be addressed.

If my father was around he would have had something to say about it. And like me would have been appalled at the death of Keith Palmer, who died doing his duty.

John Bird is the founder and Editor in Chief of The Big Issue. Email: john.bird@bigissue.com

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