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Opinion

The Big Issue at 30: Thirty years of changes… and one thing that’s stayed the same

As The Big Issue hits its 30th anniversary, editor Paul McNamee looks back at all that has changed during the magazine’s existence. The structural poverty that led to the need for the magazine, however, is not something that has gone away.

There is one thing of which I’m certain. When John Bird and Gordon Roddick launched The Big Issue in 1991 they didn’t predict that in the week the title marked its 30th anniversary, a pop star’s remarks about her cousin’s friend’s testicles, related to a viral pandemic, would make global news. Or that the British PM would get involved in the chat.

But that, as the kids say, is the tea.

Things move quickly.

In 1991 the USSR still existed, but not for much longer, the internet was still about four years from getting its boots on, and being woke was what happened when your mother came in to tell you that you were late for school.

Nicki Minaj and her unfeasibly large impotent testicles were beyond the ken of all of us.

Through all the changes, all the prime ministers, all the governments and devolved Parliaments across Britain with big talk and grand plans, through the cashless rise and the collapse of trust in truth, The Big Issue has stood. We have meant something and we have worked for something. We have been a hand up, not a hand out.

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That original core plan remains hardwired into our DNA.

One of my favourite stats about The Big Issue is the one about the International Space Station. That is, if you stacked all the Big Issues sold in the UK they’d reach that permanently manned laboratory looking down at us all. Which is convenient if the folks up there are in need of their weekly Big Issue fix. Though we haven’t got a vendor up there. Yet.

It turns out my maths was off. We wouldn’t reach the space station. We’d reach beyond the space station. In fact, we’d reach it and then come halfway back down.

The reason I like that fact is because of what it represents. Every single one of those 220 million magazine sales is a positive change. It is opportunity. It’s the chance of something better. Every single sale.

Through the years I’ve been asked numerous times if The Big Issue exists to no longer exist. It’s a good question and one that can be answered both yes and no. Yes, because if there is no need for The Big Issue then structural poverty of the sort that leads to people needing to sell The Big Issue has been conquered. That most intractable of intractables will have been resolved. In truth that is unlikely. There are no signs that a great societal poverty solution is in the offing.

And there is another side to this. The Big Issue has grown over the years. What started as a magazine has developed into so much more, both in what we do and who we do it for. Parts of the organisation such as the Foundation and the investment arm, Big Issue Invest, are long-established core Big Issue components. But growth continues. The partnership work through RORA has been an attempt to keep people in homes and in jobs as post-Covid futures became uncertain. The jobs board to help people find a new future grew from there. There is also a Big Issue eBikes scheme in the offing, a programme to help train future journalists from difficult backgrounds and The Big Exchange ethical investment platform.

The Big Issue means a great deal to huge number of people

I mention these as an illustration that The Big Issue is growing to offer more and more people new opportunity.

The Big Issue, as a title, will remain central to this, both as a magazine and increasingly through what we do online.

We have a responsibility to work for our vendors, to produce something they can take to the street every week and have the best chance of earning a living through selling. We’ll work to help them as the opportunities on the High Street contract.

But we also have to make sure our voice sounds loud – to challenge those who would put their self-interest and greed ahead of everything else, and to offer a platform to those normally frozen out.

We also can call on some very big names to mould things.

Over 30 years The Big Issue has delivered a succession of guest editors. They’ve ranged from Damien Hirst to Joan Bakewell, Jarvis Cocker to Dame Floella Benjamin. Comics fountainhead Mark Millar brought Luke Skywalker and got as close as anybody is recent decades to reuniting The Kinks when he was guest editor. Armando Iannucci had Alan Partridge in conversation with Malcolm Tucker.

Where, but The Big Issue, would these kind of things happen?

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The Big Issue means a great deal to huge number of people. Every part of the organisation exists and grows because of the other parts – from our vendors and you, their customers, to the ever-committed staff, to the advocates and supporters who take to social media to be our boosters, to those who give time and smarts to develop next stages. And we miss our vendors who have died. They are not forgotten. They are part of our story. All is connected.

To be part of The Big Issue is something special. Thank you for being with us. We look up and ahead, whatever comes next.

Paul McNamee is editor of The Big Issue

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If you can't visit your local vendor on a regular basis, then the next best way to support them is with a subscription to the Big Issue. As a social enterprise, we invest every penny we make back into the organisation. That means that with every subscription, we are supporting people in poverty to get back on their own two feet.
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