Opinion

Our leaders don't have the political vision we so desperately need in a crisis

We need thinkers who will avoid the traps of yesteryear, which led us from one half-baked piece of thinking to the next

Tony Blair clapping and Gordon Brown waving

Tony Blair and Gordon Brown after the then-chancellor of the exchequer delivered his keynote speech at the 2006 Labour Party conference – a key moment in Brown becoming the next prime minister. Image: Alamy/AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth

What, you ask of leaders, is leadership? That’s what you pay them to display. That’s why they are elected. A great demonstration of leadership was shown to me recently in the 2021 BBC documentary Blair & Brown: The New Labour Revolution, when Gordon Brown, after many leaderly reversals, grasped the reins of world financial leadership and saved the capitalist system. Even Obama had to admit that Brown was the boy.

Of course, even with leadership, you solve one problem but at times create others. The banks and investment system were saved and became largely a public thing, our toy to decide what to do with next. This opportunity, though, was thrown away; rescued by public money in such a way that investors and banks made solvent again could return to screwing us in the same old way: be risk averse, shy of supporting business and the public, and generally return to generating their vast fees and bonuses.

Get the latest news and insight into how the Big Issue magazine is made by signing up for the Inside Big Issue newsletter

Rarely does leadership – even useful and inspired and necessary leadership – come without a troubling echo. There’s a price to pay. Wars of great magnitude often come about in the wake of some apparently necessary act or decision that at the time seems both logical and limited, but then ignites an unlimited war that in some ways lay hidden within the limited earlier event.

Who would be advantaged by a Middle Eastern war? Perhaps this is players playing a cat-and-mouse game with the current status quo in the Middle East in order to destroy it once and for all?

Wars, revolutions, reversals of human fortune are largely the result of leaders not seeing around the next corner, or not having a ‘what if’ strategy for virtually all potentially damaging scenarios. 

A case in point might be the closing down of the parliamentary pandemic committee 18 months before Covid struck. Or the sending of troops to Northern Ireland in 1969, supposedly to separate angry Protestants and Catholics from each other but in fact leading to 30 years of death and violence. There seemed a logic to it at the time, but it reaped untold human suffering in its wake.

The current events in Gaza seem so deadly that they have all the hallmarks of a bitterly fought and vast, escalating war. Yet the current leadership of the key players seems to not be thinking of the potential for more harm than has already been committed. We may be in the foothills of greater devastation if leadership doesn’t become truly leaderly and stop us entering the swamp of war.

I wonder if strings are not being pulled elsewhere, as our leaders are led by the nose into untold destruction (excuse me if I have slipped into conspiracy mode for a moment). A history of political leadership over the last hundred or so years would not inspire trust in any of the current leaders, for they seem as narrow in their vision as our own marinated-in-privilege leaders.

Responding to the immediate crisis without a depth of understanding dominates virtually all of our recent history. It may actually be the political history of all political history.

The leaders mankind has thrown up over the centuries may just be unable to see round the next corner. Perhaps our best brains are keeping our hospitals running, or teaching our children, or driving our trains. Or even, dare I say, in our prisons? They are certainly not found in the corridors of power. And that’s the worry: leaderliness requires more than the paucity provided by bourgeois education and some ability to marshal enough votes to be leader.

One believable leader I had the pleasure to meet was the late Michael Young. He mostly avoided politics and got on with creating things that were useful to society. Like the Open University and the Consumers’ Association. Countless initiatives flowed from him, the last being The School for Social Entrepreneurs, which I was involved in in its founding days. What a bright chap he was and an inspiration to know.

But the ones I knew personally were Anita and Gordon Roddick who, as well as being the sponsors of The Big Issue, put Fair Trade on the map. And did a power of good in protecting the people of the Amazonian rainforest. And did an equal power of good in outlawing testing on animals.

Social and cultural innovations, though, must be set against a backdrop of political wisdom and justice. That is why we need to be sure that our leaders are capable of second sight, predicating their actions on avoiding potential threats and the consequences of limited intelligence. Which means a skilful use of available data and not following Blair and Bush down a rabbit hole like Iraq. What a destabilising pig’s ear piece of ‘subsequent history’ that was. Have we yet recovered from it?

The record so far does nothing to encourage us to believe that we have gifted political leaders; thinkers who will avoid the traps of yesteryear, which led us from one half-baked piece of thinking to the next.

Leadership is essential now. Razing Gaza to the ground will be falling into an inextricable political trap. It’s almost as if poverty and ‘belonging’ drive history on like a leaf in a storm drain, relentlessly from one piece of pain to the next.

John Bird is the founder and editor in chief of The Big Issue. Read more of his words here.

Do you have a story to tell or opinions to share about this? We want to hear from you. Get in touch and tell us more

Support your local Big Issue vendor

If you can’t get to your local vendor every week, subscribing directly to them online is the best way to support your vendor. Your chosen vendor will receive 50% of the profit from each copy and the rest is invested back into our work to create opportunities for people affected by poverty.
Vendor martin Hawes

Recommended for you

View all
Seven of the last nine PMs went to Oxford. Has it gotten us any closer to solving child poverty?
John Bird

Seven of the last nine PMs went to Oxford. Has it gotten us any closer to solving child poverty?

Voter ID rules are racist – let’s get rid of them once and for all
voter ID, local elections 2023
Alba Kapoor

Voter ID rules are racist – let’s get rid of them once and for all

Sunak has been like an automaton for so long. Our leaders shouldn't fear being seen as human
Paul McNamee

Sunak has been like an automaton for so long. Our leaders shouldn't fear being seen as human

Smart, no-nonsense moves by Starmer show how toxic and incompetent the Tories have really been
Sam Delaney

Smart, no-nonsense moves by Starmer show how toxic and incompetent the Tories have really been

Most Popular

Read All
Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits
Renters: A mortgage lender's window advertising buy-to-let products
1.

Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal
Pound coins on a piece of paper with disability living allowancve
2.

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal

Cost of living payment 2024: Where to get help now the scheme is over
next dwp cost of living payment 2023
3.

Cost of living payment 2024: Where to get help now the scheme is over

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know
4.

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know

The Big Issue

Sign up to get your FREE Doctor Who Archive Special

Celebrate the 14th series with your FREE edition of the Dr Who Special Archives