On Tuesday night a homeless man was found dying outside the Houses of Parliament. Earlier that day, ConHome interviewed Lord Bird – better known as John Bird, founder in 1991 of The Big Issue – about homelessness.
Bird said it is no use just caring about the subject at Christmas, or imagining there is some quick fix for it. But he described Theresa May as “the most impressive Prime Minister I’ve spoken to” about homelessness, and he has spoken to everyone since Tony Blair.
When asked if he is still (as he once said) “a working-class Tory”, he replied: “I just loathe what liberalism has become, which is almost a kind of front for just letting things slip.” In the Lords he sits as a Crossbencher.
He has a gift for running off full tilt at some interesting tangent, and as an illustration of his defiance of the liberal consensus, launched into the arguments in favour of capital punishment, which he contended might help to deter knife crime.
He expressed his disappointment with the British middle class, saying he took a lot of trouble to rise into it, but then found it unwilling, for all its education, to do the intellectual work needed to deal with homelessness.
ConHome: “You’re walking down the street, you see someone sleeping in a doorway, you think that’s shameful.”
Bird: “The thing about homelessness is that it can never, ever be dealt with as a thing in itself. What actually happens is you get a lot of people at this time of the year, they forget about poverty, they forget about cause and effect, and they just deal with this insult to our eyes and our sensibilities, and our sense of Christian love for our fellow man, and we get very, very upset.
“Because we are moving towards this beautiful ceremony which is the birth of Christ. We almost feel kind of a bit better each day, the nearer we get to it, it is about salvation, even people who are not religious, you see them wanting to do good things around Christmas.
“So you’re moving that way and at the same time there’s this appalling evidence of the failure to do anything about it. You come round the back by the [Westminster Underground] station and there’s a number of guys staying there, and occasionally you see MPs talking to them, by Parliament’s entrance into the station, and everybody gets very upset with the sight of these guys laying around.” It is here that the dying man was found on Tuesday night.
“And I’m always saying why not have a vigorous response to emergency instead of an unvigorous response to emergency, and why don’t we start looking at the budgets, and why is the budget always there when the shit has hit the fan, metaphorically speaking, but is never there for the prevention of the fan being covered with ordure?
“I find that most crazy. It took me a while to get into the British middle class and I’m being quite honest, I’ve been thoroughly disappointed with their abilities to actually think.
“You know, the universities and the public schools, they don’t seem to be able to put together a programme for saying ‘OK, how can we prevent this from happening?’
“From the days of Blair, when we started The Big Issue, I never met anybody who you could respect their thinking. They always kind of talked in short terms: ‘What we’re going to do is put some money behind these homeless organisations, who’ll get these people off the streets, and then we’ll put them into social housing, and we’ll have an ecosystem.”
ConHome: “Oh heavens.”
Bird: “And then you say hang on, but when they’re in the social housing, and you visit them as I do, five years after they’ve been rehoused, they’re still living in bin liners. They’re not working, they’re not earning, they’re socially isolated. They’ve gone from wet, outdoor, moist, trench-foot homelessness, to indoor homelessness.
“And then they become a drain on the rates, they become an absolute pain to the people around them, because they’ve got all day doing nothing, and no one has ever tried to get the demons out of them that have brought them into this cycle of failure.
“I’m not impressed by cleverness, because I’ve seen too many clever people do stupid things. I’m not impressed by education, because I’ve seen very, very educated, some of the most educated people in this world are to be found in both Houses [of Parliament]. But we need more than the sum of what they’ve got.
“What we really need is an intellectual revolution where we stop and we say, ‘Why is government not working? Why is it that when we intervene in the crisis of poverty, there’s 80 per cent of our money that goes into emergency and coping, not into prevention or in cure.
“And when I met Theresa May, who to me has been the most impressive Prime Minister I’ve spoken to, and I’ve had dealings with four of them.”
ConHome: “What impressed you about her?”
Bird: “She listened. She gave me half an hour and took 45 minutes, and wrote down, and responded to our notes, and actually at times was ahead of us, saying ‘So what you’re saying is you feel that we need to put prevention right in the middle of the Government, this is what I intend doing.’
“Two days later she declared the election. If she’d won the election as opposed to limped through, I think we might have had a different regime from her.
“I have been in the company of, and spoken to, and been chummy with Blair, Brown, Cameron, and here comes no-nonsense May, and I thought ‘Oh’, and Oliver, who works with me, he just said ‘Yeah, she’s different’.
“So what you’ve got is somebody doing a job, it’s like being an architect, and someone saying ‘Before you build this beautiful brick house you’ve got to sort out the drains’, and that’s Brexit.
“And I don’t think she’s particularly good at drains. But I think she might have been quite good at building this preventative form of methodology for the Government to embrace. That’s what I believe.
“So I’m not trying to have a go at the British middle class.”
ConHome: “Well you’re in the upper class now. You’ve sprung from the working class to the upper class. The middle class has got to take the rap.”
Bird: “But the point is, the answer lies in the middle. It doesn’t lie in the extremes. So until you can convince the British middle class to get off their intellectual arses and actually do a bit of deep thinking and a deep involvement…”
ConHome: “You must find you have to repeat yourself an awful lot, especially just before Christmas.”
Bird: “Oh yeah, it’s a real Groundhog Day. I whinge even more each year because come 3rd January you could go to the BBC – I’ve just come from Sky – and try selling them a story about homelessness, and you get ‘Oh no, no, no – that’s seasonal’.”
ConHome: “I was struck by your remark in 2010, ‘My guilty secret is that I’m really a working-class Tory.’ Is that still your guilty secret? Well it’s not secret any more, but is it still the case?”
Bird: “Well I also went on and said I believe in the return of capital punishment.”
ConHome: “Do you still believe in that?”
Bird: “Well I think there is something that goes on in most people’s lives. You make conscious decisions to do things like to be kind to animals, or to be pleasant to old ladies, but underneath it all you may not be well-disposed towards children or women.
“And I have tried desperately hard to be incredibly liberal and all that, but every now and then I just loathe what liberalism has become, which is almost a kind of front for just letting things slip.
“I’m a cradle Catholic and I’m a cradle Conservative. I would like to be an unbeliever, but I can’t get away with it. So I’m on overdrive.
“What I meant by that is every time some heinous crime is committed against children, or against weak children, or against disabled people, I want to go out and cut their throats. Or get the state to do it for me.
“I did a lot of work on the repeal of capital punishment, and I found there was really no rationale.
“I want the discussion to be opened up, largely because if anyone did anything against my family, I would want everybody to do with it to be strung up in public, or not in public.
“I thought there was a real snidey piece of bullshitty thinking.”
ConHome: “When the death penalty was abolished?”
Bird: “Yes. I mean I was very glad, because my mother was a lovely Irishwoman who was convinced that because I started off as a petty criminal…”
ConHome: “You were going to end your days on the gallows. Did she actually tell you that?”
Bird: “Oh yes. She said ‘One day you’ll fecking die.'”
ConHome: “Very good.”
Bird: “And then she modified it, and said, ‘If you’re going to be hung, Tony’ – I was Tony Bird then – ‘if you’re going to be hung, Tony, I’d like you to be hung for Ireland.’ As long as I blew someone away…”
ConHome: “As an IRA man?”
ConHome: “They were heroes as far as she was concerned.”
Bird: “Yes. But when the bombs did start, she got very upset and she hated it all. So she was a romantic, from the days when Brendan Behan arrived in Liverpool with a bomb to blow up someone to frighten them out of the six counties.”
ConHome: “Anyhow, you still think we should have the death penalty.”
Bird: “No, I think we should have the debate about the death penalty. Because what has happened is that in the same way as we have privatised many services, we’ve also privatised the death penalty.
“There was a time when the state had the monopoly on violence.”
ConHome: “What’s the private way of doing the death penalty?”
Bird: “You only go to south London, you have to be a young kid and somebody sticks a knife in you, that is the privatisation. There’s no state monopoly of violence.”
ConHome: “Well there never has been a total monopoly. We’ve always had some murders.”
Bird: “But the state always had the legal opportunities. Now what we’ve done is we’ve privatised the monopoly. The monopoly is held by the public.
“I know so much about those little arseholes with their knives, I think there’s a chance that if they felt that there’s chances that they themselves would be destroyed for that act, they might stop doing it.”
ConHome: “It hasn’t worked very well in America.”
Bird: “That’s because there’s a monopoly of the use of guns.”
ConHome: “That’s always been privatised in America.”
Bird: “The interesting thing about America is you’ve actually got a devaluation of human life, which is very much to do with the slave trade and the fact that they never really could absolve themselves of that responsibility, and it will take hundred and hundreds of years.”
The interview could have continued for many hours, but Bird had to take part in a debate in the House of Lords.