John Bird: Pick up the pace. This is the new politics

The speed of events is one of the worst features of the current political era

The forthcoming post-election day when the results come in will probably not be a sunny day, unless we are gifted with some unseasonal wintrous glow. But on one particular post-election day when the results were finalised it was a sunny summer’s day, if I remember correctly.

My fiancée and I strolled around St James’s and Green Park, coming down from Hyde Park Corner.

I had just been asked not to return to my washing up job in Parliament. I therefore could no longer boast in the Dog & Vomit, as I had renamed our local pub, that I was washing up for British democracy. Pity; it was such a gas, as they say, to say such a thing.


In total, more than 92,000 people have sold The Big Issue since 1991 to help themselves work their way out of poverty – more than could fit into Wembley Stadium.

The idea of describing myself as washing up for British democracy came to me because of a certain road sweeper I knew when I was a sweeper for the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea; sweeping up some of the most privileged streets ever concocted in our Empire. Fellow roadsweeper Len knew all the dodges. And he had a great line in storytelling.

His great claim to fame was how he had vigorously, tenaciously, and comprehensively washed up and made sandwiches against Hitler. He being a member of the Army Catering Corp. He made a lot of it, telling stories of how, following on from what Napoleon said – that an army marches on its stomach – he single-handedly made fighting soldiers healthy and gun-ready. So me providing parliamentarians with clean forks and knives was equally plausible.

But the joke fell flat when they did not renew my temporary contract and I had to go off to North Acton and drive a forklift truck cleaning broken Vaseline bottles from a factory floor. Back to another stop-gap job, plenteous in those times, until I developed skills that were more saleable in the job marketplace.

I saw Ted Heath close up and noted such things as the spittle in the corner of his mouth. How human things were back then

At Buckingham Palace we were suddenly stopped by a very vigorous policeman pushing back the crowds. And there, being waved on, was a dark blue Rover car, proudly British, carrying the smiling and victorious leader of the winning party.

Mr Heath went in a mere party leader and came out the Queen’s Prime Minister. It was the 1970 election, and the astonishing had happened, as it often happened at election time: Edward Heath beat the Labour incumbent Harold Wilson to the top job. Harold clung on to repair the damage done by losing and won, just about, four years later.

The smiling, waving, happy and contented Edward Heath could later be seen standing outside Number 10, declaring his undying commitment to making the world a better place. In the exact spot where others did later, and many had done before. My fiancée and I actually stood feet from the man as he made his declarations and promises. For back then Downing Street was open and not surrounded by a ring of steel.

Also the incredible, almost aggressive, jockeying, panicked nature of press coverage did not mean you were unable to get near to the big people with the big promises. So I saw Heath close up and noted such things as the spittle in the corner of his mouth. How human things were back then!


In total, more than 92,000 people have sold The Big Issue since 1991 to help themselves work their way out of poverty – more than could fit into Wembley Stadium.

We traipsed on, a young couple, me in my early twenties and my wife-to-be still a teenager. We went to Joe Lyons in the Strand and had a steak and kidney pie with lashings of gravy, and large cups of brown tea. Everything seemed leisurely.

Losing the leisurely surely must be one of the greatest losses of current political times. The feverishness, stoked up by a press that seems desperate to make of it all a kind of orgasm of hate and fear, which it may well have become. But 1970 and the elections before seemed almost parochial, as if they were competitions for the local council, or some provincial authority. Now you feel it’s all knife-edge. And you can’t get anywhere near to see the candidates anyway.

Of course if you are a Europe-lover, a Remainer, then Edward’s your man. He took us in based on simply getting MPs to agree to enter the Common Market. Fortunately for Heath, the biggest obstacle to membership had been removed. De Gaulle had left office a few years before and died later in 1970. Heath got a better reception in France, de Gaulle having nursed incredible hatred for Great Britain, due to his time there during the war. Bitternesses evaporated, or enough of them for our membership to be accepted finally in 1973.

And then of course, in 1975, Harold Wilson’s promised referendum sealed the deal with 67 per cent voting to stay.

No, today you can’t walk round at a leisurely pace and without a sense of fear and anger and mortification any more in current-day Westminster. Now it’s all very wound up.

And surprisingly we have a traditional Labour Party socialist candidate to choose from, or a trad Tory Old Etonian toff if that’s more to your liking. Obviously the attempts to create a kind of Major-Thatcher-Blair classless middle class politician seem for the moment to be abandoned. Now we’re back to a kind of raw choice.


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It does in some ways feel less modernly egalitarian than 1970. There you had the northern-sounding son of a municipal mayor standing against a grocer’s son; although both had the patina of Oxbridge applied to them to give them that sense of the right to rule. Now we have North London Polytechnic and grammar school against Eton and Oxford.

And all overlaid with Brexit.

Will we ever see a quieter Westminster again, when the young can stroll in peace and harmony? One can only live in hope that the frenzy gets dumped soon.

John Bird is editor in chief of The Big Issue

Photo: Alamy