Opinion

Suella Braverman's asinine comments show how detached government is from reality 

Joined-up thinking is amiss in the final year of this government, as proven by the home secretary's recent comments

John Bird discusses Suella Braverman’s comments on Good Morning Britain

John Bird discusses Suella Braverman’s comments on Good Morning Britain on 6 November. Image: Ken McKay/ITV/Shutterstock

Although there was a lack of trees and any evidence of nature in my Notting Hill slums as a child, there were a large number of horses. Horses were everywhere in the stables of West London’s Notting Hill and Paddington. They were the large cart horses that stood way above even the tallest handler. Horses were humanising and the smell of their droppings still haunts me all these years later.  

But one day as a four-year-old I saw something that showed the tragic side of life for a working horse. From out of a cobbled mews I was about to walk into charged a wild and madly excited horse. It ran to the corner and then ran up the street. Then it must have turned again and seen its home and charged back down the mews.

By the time I entered the mews the horse had slipped and fallen and was in a panic on the cobbled ground. A vast, wounded animal with men coming out and getting me to leave the sight of such tragedy.   

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Why did this image come back to me when I was involved in TV and radio interviews last week after Suella Braverman made the thoughtless suggestion that many homeless people make a lifestyle choice to sleep in tents on the street?

The day started early with morning TV, and by the afternoon I felt like a wild horse. I was carried away by the questioning, the madness of what a cabinet member was saying; and now my mouth seemed to take over. What started off as a careful and managed commentary finally ended up with me saying, when asked if Braverman should retire, that the last home secretary had been rubbish, as was the current one; and the next one will be equally rubbish.  

I loved the careful and measured and hard-hitting earlier Bird mouth; but when the mouth took over I
realised I was ending up angry. And that’s where I have been most of my life. Like a wild horse of a mouth and regretting it later.  

Why? Because I believe that careful, thoughtful incisiveness is what we should be seeking. Not what can end up looking like a slagging off.  

But it was a big issue that Braverman was raising with her comments. And that is that government departments and their heads are often lost in a place that does not correspond to reality. You could call it an ivory tower but I don’t know if that is quite right. Ivory towers in life don’t seem as feverish as the ones that surround government. A kind of controlled panic is much in evidence as government ministers rush feverishly through their day, driven, often unable to process issues that require more deliberation.  

And the response to the asinine comments of government ministers who, for instance, say that homeless people elect to spend their lives in tents and in doorways, as Braverman has said, must be measured, careful and deadly accurate.  

So this image of a wild horse and my runaway mouth coincided and made me regret that I said anything that could in some way be seen as unconducive to thoughtfulness.   

Yet how clearly the home secretary’s comments demonstrated how broken and indecisive government thinking is in dealing with the social issues that cause people to end up on the streets. How doing a ‘bit here and a bit there’ leads Braverman to make a statement such as it’s a lifestyle choice to shift to street homelessness.  

Think about it: you’re the home secretary and you see a social problem that is not solved as just a social problem; but it migrates to the street and becomes a law-and-order problem. Then with your law-and-order hat, which is the only hat you’ve been given to wear, you lash out and make statements that are not backed up with data and facts.  

Why, dare I ask, did Braverman not castigate her fellow cabinet ministers for allowing a social problem to slip into her patch for her to solve – knowing full well that she and her department do not have the skills to solve social problems. If ever we needed a Ministry of Poverty Prevention – my ask of government – it was at the precise moment that Braverman opened her mouth to say what she said. For it showed there was no coordination in cabinet thinking.  

But it wasn’t so long ago that the home secretary held a large social improvement portfolio. For the Justice Ministry and the Home Office were one and the same. As a 17-year-old in a reformatory I remember having my hand shaken by a home secretary, pleased as he was to see that I was repairing myself away from rough sleeping and crime. Now of course the home secretary can only really put on that silly hat and say, “Homeless people bring it down on themselves by making a life choice to kip rough.”  

Joined-up thinking and doing is amiss in the final year of this government. Will they pull their finger out and take us into a splendid setting sun of thoughtful social intervention?  

The signs are not encouraging.

John Bird is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Big Issue, and he wrote more on this topic in The Times. Read more of his words here.

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