Opinion

'Strong voices should not take priority over strong arguments'

In the theatre of politics, it's important not to let the delivery overshadow the message

More than 300 years after his death Matsuo Basho is still considered Japan’s greatest master of haiku Photo: HERITAGE IMAGE PARTNERSHIP LTD / ALAMY STOCK PHOTO

Voices are so important. You could tell that in the Prime Minister’s Question Time last week. Boris Johnson’s is rotund and – for me – easy on the ear. Keir Starmer’s is sharper, more insistent. I am reminded of what Anita Roddick said to me at the launch of The Big Issue. I had spoken loudly and as if with authority in this, my debut as a public speaker. She said, “It’s not so much what you say, it’s the way you say it.”

And that is one of the great problems of political debate. We are trained to be reassured by a voice that seems to be less grating. Margaret Thatcher addressed this in her move on the leadership of the Conservative Party when she went to lessons to cut the shrill out of her voice, so that she could appear deeper-voiced, and perhaps more knowledgeable. More authoritative.

I’m not so sure it’s that simple but perhaps there is a need to make sure political statements are delivered at their best. This is what passed through my mind as I listened last week to the guarded apologies of Johnson and the sharp rebukes from the Leader of the Opposition.

I was lost therefore in the theatrics of presentation. Perhaps demonstrating to me that my mind had wandered away from the major concerns; which in that argument seemed to be around truth. Something that everyone swears by.

The previous day I had had a good birthday. I travelled with family to Norwich to go to the well-formed Sainsbury Centre at the University of East Anglia. It was a brilliant sunny day, and for the penultimate day of January it was loaded with the potential of spring. I was made a fuss of and indulged and given books of poetry and Russian novels. Cards were made for me. Yet I knew that the next day would be a big day in Parliament and a kind of political cloud hung over the sunny day.

Perhaps, I said to a few people last week, we could do with a touch of political sun. The ever-lingering cloud of Covid, with its distortions of our freedoms and our health service; and the ongoing argument as to whether the government was cocking a snook at the rules, as they felt they were above them? I suppose I am not the best person to be outraged by transgressions played on us by governments, having accumulated experiences over many decades of the badly behaved custodians of our supposed peace and wellbeing. 

As I said in my piece last week, I’m obsessed at the moment about the rules around government contracts. It seems we are failing ourselves if we don’t give this government the toughest time over holes that appeared in the Covid ‘gravy train’ of government contracts. That to me is a deciding factor in the health or otherwise of the political system we operate within. What it demonstrates is that representational democracy is looking increasingly tattered and torn and that our need to move into participatory democracy is ever more needed. A reinvention of ‘representational’ – so that we are not always drawing from the same social gene pool for our leaders – yes. But getting deeper into ‘participation’ is the answer.

Driving back from Norwich, I could not help but compose a haiku about the rubbish you see lying by our roadsides. A haiku – five syllables followed by seven and then another five – is a simple way of remembering things:

The road is dirty.

Plastic wrappings everywhere.

Who is the cleaner?

Haikus are mostly about observations on nature. But nature is often spoilt by the presence of stuff that shouldn’t be there.

Back to the importance of voice: the advice I always give people who want to save the world or change the world, or just be useful is: speak out clearly and with emphasis. Speak out strongly and vary your pitch and your pace. How many good messages have been lost in the delivery? I remember the soft-spoken chap who came into my office in the early days of The Big Issue who said he seriously wanted to help homeless people to help themselves – our mantra. I told him to come back louder. He did – clearer and more convincing.

But to me the biggest problem with birthdays, even if overshadowed by political clouds, is that they are then over and gone. There are just so many days in the year when it’s not your birthday, and the wait’s a long one. Such feelings are seemingly childish, and I do hope I keep that childishness to me.

Back to the voice again: yes, we need political fire at this time. We need to speak up against what we see as political venality. But let us also be making sure that we are fighting on the best ground with the best arguments marshalled. To address the fact that we are still caught in this Covid country and that our exit from it – and from the ‘venality’ that we’ve been exposed to – involves some strong voices.

And the image of all that plastic strewn along the highways will to me be the abiding image of what I did on my birthday: compose. Perhaps we could start by cleaning up our own back yard.

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

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine. If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

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