Opinion

Stopgap politics won't cut it. We need proper forward planning

Stopgap politics - John Bird

A speculator tries to sell his car for $100 cash having lost all on the stock market in the Wall Street Crash, 1929. Covid has had a similarly seismic impact. Image: Shawshots / Alamy Stock Photo

If I have learned something since I went into Parliament and spent more time reflecting on the nature of government it is the abject waste there is, and the muddle of things.

In some strange way I have concluded that I have never really left behind the Notting Hill slums that I was born to – the slums were simply exported into the rest of life. That though society did not live in a physical slum, the same stopgap thinking dominated the world beyond the slum. If you get what I mean.

I realised, as I moved away from slum life, that slum thinking was the norm of post-war thinking. Like that, in the slums, there could be bright spots. Like an NHS that did its best to keep the poor as healthy as possible. Or like the arrival of the glistening youth culture of Presley and then The Beatles.

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As The Beatles were making their way up the gladiatorial hit parade, the working classes were vast and ill-fed and ill-housed. Most working-class work was backbreaking and likely to shorten and impoverish human life. Most working-class people inherited poverty as their birthright, and we can still see this today, with vast amounts of people – in their millions – kept alive by state support. No exit for them into the uplands of prosperity and health. We squandered health and education and cultural opportunities because British society simply muddled through.

Government and the society that it comes out of seems full of stopgaps and half-arsed thinking; and this continual waste of life and human resources in some ways mimicked my former slum life. Disorder and misuse of human resources were carried on, in more cosmetic forms, by society in general.

In short, I was born in the middle of a muddle, and the muddle was the norm for the whole of society. Governments and businesses, political and social passions and fashions always threw up as much waste as I could survey from my childhood back window; symbolically like the slummy, dug-up communal garden we lived next to.

Wastefulness of talent and human ability, couched in the language of politics, lived on as I moved through homelessness and incarceration into the middle classes. I should have realised that wastefulness would continue and be the order of the day.

Excuse my whine. But have you noticed how much of today’s politics is trying to get over some mistake or wasteful decision made previously? How unsystematic government is, pushed from pillar to post by the circumstances thrown up, responding to them with stopgap solutions?

Brexit, Covid, inflation and recession have created a kind of stopgappism all of its own. Temporarism, if there is such a word, dominates. And the media kicks so many political and social cans up and down the road without a logical thought. The fact is there are some really big issues going on in the world, like the relationship we are going to have with Russia and China and the environmental pressures of the waste we throw up. Paradoxically such concerns seem to be not our concern, but they are vital to grasp.

Rather, we have the patching up – so to speak – of the mental slum life we live as a country; the simply making do.

For instance, why is it that, in order to get concessions out of government, people have to go on strike? Life and death decisions are therefore made on a picket line. And then reluctantly in an unplanned, unthought-out way the government ‘slums’ along; and concessions are made.

Instead of underlining this lack of political clarity that makes life less liveable, the media and the opposition simply call foul.

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

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