Opinion

Poverty eats away at all it touches – it must be dug out at its roots

Let us hope that the next general election will not be full of vacuous promises that collapse on first encountering reality

I went recently to the Victoria & Albert Museum in South Kensington, having stayed the night in my favourite Premier Inn hotel at Putney Bridge. It was formerly the headquarters of ICL – International Computers Limited – a British attempt at trying to see off the large American computer giant IBM. Britain had led in computing up to and into the Second World War, but as compensation for underwriting the cost of the war, the US insisted that Great Britain – as it was then called – surrender many of the advances it had made in computing. 

The “white heat of technology” was Harold Wilson’s slogan for a Labour government that came to power to modernise Britain and make it a world leader in science and business again. But that promise did not happen after Wilson won the election 60 years ago. 

Big Issue is demanding an end to poverty this general election. Will you sign our open letter to party leaders?

Elections are often full of promises, but it does worry me when they are not backed up by decidedly different policies and thinking. Instead we get ‘more of the same’. Let us hope that the next general election will not be full of vacuous promises that collapse on first encountering reality. 

I stayed in my favourite hotel because I had a short debate in the Lords that day, lasting only an hour and a half. My subject for debate was: what was the government going to do about the root causes of childhood poverty. I had 15 minutes to explain my position, that we very rarely talk about the roots of poverty, the causes of poverty. We usually concentrate solely on trying to bring relief to people in poverty. 

I included what I want to campaign for around the general election when it happens: that is, not only more social housing, which we desperately need, but also a revolution in social housing. So that getting social housing doesn’t condemn you and your children to an eternity of poverty, which is largely the case now. That social housing has to be seen as the foundation stone for a fuller life that can help you out of
poverty, and that your children don’t only inherit poverty from you. 

There was some misinterpretation of my position. That I was having a go at social housing by saying it often keeps people in poverty. I did my best to counter this misunderstanding but I am sure I did not convince everyone. 

I told my family story of how after the slums of Notting Hill, homelessness and then a Catholic orphanage coming to the rescue, we came out and got our own council flat. I also like telling people that sharing one slum toilet with perhaps eight families was a very trying affair; and that if you wanted a crap you had to book it two days ahead. I joke. But getting social housing, with a bath and toilet and a kitchen with running water, was like becoming as rich as one of The Beatles. 

I am hoping that we can build an alliance of government and business and charities and the public to help turn social housing into the beginning of the end of poverty in one’s life. 

It was an electric evening in the Lords and the six other speakers did a good job of putting meat on the bone of poverty, while I tried to get to those roots of poverty and the need to make sure that poverty is not the only inheritance people are given, as was my case. (As an aside I am, according to my oldest friend, actually worth £5m, which he insists is the truth because he read it on the internet. I did remind him that he should check this out before he passes it on.) 

So I stayed over in London and the next morning went to the V&A to see masses of their Constable paintings, drawings and sketches. Constable is my favourite British artist and I have been looking at him since I was 16. But I was unfortunately in for a disappointment. Only a handful of Constable’s works were on display. I was told that this was because they don’t have enough room to display all of the enormously exciting pictures that I looked at in my youth and young manhood.

They are in storage, with a handful changed every now and then. Not the incredible array of his work shown 50, 40, maybe 20 years ago. The vast collection of the Constables that the V&A have were given to them by Constable’s daughter to be displayed, not just to be stored. This really cheesed me off. 

So in my spare time I am going to campaign to create a Constable gallery, similar to the one that Turner has at Tate Britain. If these works are given for the public good, and Constable knocks the spots off of any other British artist, then they should be shown. 

Of course I will not allow my passion for Constable to cloud my great campaign to turn the thinking of future governments to digging out the roots of poverty. For children and all. 

Poverty eats away at all it touches, including the best intentions of politicians who say they got into politics to get rid of it. A practical reallocation of thinking around poverty, please; that’s what we want. Not hollow and unachievable promises.

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

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This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income. To support our work buy a copy!

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