Last weekend, 8,000 people slept rough – after a fashion – in Princes Street Gardens, Edinburgh, in another of the PR-savvy events that have become synonymous with charity fund-raising; Glasgow responded with the spectacle of thousands of Santas parading through the streets for yet another good cause. The civilised notion that people should simply give to a charity of their choice without making an exhibition of themselves is a Christmas custom of the past. We're all in this together now – and must be seen to be.
The Edinburgh sleepover was something else, though: it aimed to increase awareness of Scotland's homeless. Some participants spoke afterwards of the 'insight' it had given them into how it must feel to live on the streets – or, in this case, gardens.
Scotland on Sunday thought sufficiently highly of the occasion to devote the whole of its front page to a photo of the slumbering multitude. But then the previous Sunday the same newspaper had devoted the whole of its front page to a rugby match, so we must not assume that having the front page of Scotland on Sunday all to yourself confers any special gravitas on your activity.
Nor should we assume that the 'insight' the participants may have derived from the experience bears the remotest connection to the actual lives of actual people in actual doorways. An actual homeless person is not a neighbour of John Swinney, yon named person in the bag down the street. Nor is he or she serenaded by Deacon Blue and Liam Gallagher before settling down for a long, cold night of it (even if, thankfully, it's just the one night). The actual homeless person is spared speeches by Chris Hoy and Bob Geldof and is not expected to endure a bedtime story from John Cleese.
The relatively affluent, socially conscious folk who had each coughed up at least a hundred quid for the privilege of finding out how the homeless live could have done so in profound silence and without the dubious assistance of celebs. It might have made a more powerful – and perhaps more dignified – symbolism. But still it wouldn't have come close to the actuality. To suggest that it did would demean the homeless even more than they are demeaned already.
There is, however, no disputing the crusading fervour behind the project. The statement of event organiser Josh Littlejohn the following morning was near-messianic in tone: 'Scotland is a small enough country, a compassionate enough country, and a collaborative enough country, where nobody has to be homeless here. If we put our heads together, we can wipe out homelessness in five years.'
I was marvelling at this latest reminder of Scottish exceptionalism, the assumption that we are all snoring together in the same sleeping bag; I had even started to wonder how the event organiser had arrived at his target of five years for wiping out homelessness in Scotland – I mean, why not four years? or seven and a half? – when it occurred to me that I had heard the name Josh Littlejohn somewhere before.
Ah, yes. Mr Littlejohn...
Earlier this year my colleagues at the Young Scotland Programme, hearing of his Social Bite enterprise for involving homeless people in a network of sandwich shops, thought he might make a guest speaker. They envisaged him engaging with a bunch of idealistic young adults – people like himself – from a variety of backgrounds and cultures. Nothing too formal; no prepared speech required. It seemed like a good idea.
My colleagues learned that they should contact him, not through Social Bite, but via a company called Capital Events. That was the first surprise. The second was when they heard back, not from Mr Littlejohn himself or Social Bite or Capital Events, but from an agency in London, Kruger Cowne, which represents celebrities and arranges appearance money on their behalf. Their clients include not only some of the most annoying people in Britain (and they don't get much more annoying than Gyles Brandreth, Helena Kennedy, Lord Coe, Lady Mone and Bob Geldof) but such high priests of the media as Jon Snow, John Humphrys and Kirsty Wark, whose services can be purchased for – well, who knows how much? The 'categories' for a gig range from £50,000+ all the way down to £5,000 'or under.' How much 'under' is anybody's guess.
Stephen Amfo, an 'account manager' at Kruger Cowne, gave my colleagues the bad news: they were only accepting 'paid speaking invitations for Josh as he uses the funds to enable him to continue his important work...' Mr Amfo's only question was what budget we had in mind in order to secure his client's attendance.
This was new territory for us. In the 15 years of the Young Scotland Programme we had welcomed many good, even great, people as speakers: a Nobel prize-winner whose invention has saved millions of lives, a serving first minister, the legendary Jimmy Reid (several times) and Ian Hamilton, along with the much-missed Magnus Magnusson, Kay Carmichael and Tessa Ransford and, more recently, Scotland's first black professor (the wonderful Geoff Palmer) – I'll stop there, for the list goes on and on. None of them ever asked for a fee; none of them ever referred us to an agent. Even David Hayman, who earns his living as an actor, did it for nowt and managed to write his own letters.
But my colleagues entered into the new spirit of the age and suggested a figure, a modest one, for Mr Littlejohn, emphasising that our charity was a little one – in resources at least. We never heard another word from Kruger Cowne. Presumably our proposal was so far beneath contempt as to be unworthy of a reply.
The fact that Mr Littlejohn has an agent and expects a fee for speaking engagements, the fact that at no time did my colleagues hear from him personally, the fact that his representative overlooked the basic courtesy of turning us down, doesn't make him a bad person. But it may say something about how he sees himself and about the ethos of the specific world he inhabits. Together he and his associate Sir Tom Hunter organise the annual Scottish Business Awards sponsored by that friend of the people, the Royal Bank of Scotland. 'We have worked hard with Josh and Sir Tom to ensure its success,' writes the chair of RBS's Scottish board, adding: 'We are very focused on serving our customers well.' (They close down what is left of rural Scotland, but somehow have the cash to support a succession of glitzy dinners.)
The Scottish media are dazzled by Mr Littlejohn. 'The thick, black hair, beard and determined eyes make him a dead ringer for revolutionary Che Guevara,' drools the (Glasgow) Herald. 'A man with great powers of persuasion – and a whole bundle of social ethics,' agrees the Sunday Post. I am not dazzled by him, although I respect what he does (with the obvious exception of the Scottish Business Awards). But to state that Scotland can 'wipe out' homelessness in five years is absurd.
A team at Heriot Watt University take a different view. According to their evidence-based analysis, homelessness is a long-term and growing problem. They estimate that there are 11,800 people across Scotland sleeping rough, staying in hostels or unsuitable temporary accommodation, sofa-surfing, bedding down in cars or languishing in squats. They expect that figure to rise to 18,000 by 2041.
It would help if politicians were fully aware of this. But I am inevitably reminded of a night at the Young Scotland Programme when two delegates challenged the speaker (now a senior minister in the Scottish government) about homelessness in their town, which happened to be the speaker's constituency. 'There is no homelessness there,' the speaker replied flatly. Both delegates were rough sleepers in that town. One of them, a young woman, is now dead. Her brief, wretched life revealed to us the complexity of homelessness, the temptation to over-simplify it, and the perils of well-meaning gesture. This might have been the starting point for a constructive dialogue with Josh Littlejohn at the Young Scotland Programme. Pity we couldn't afford him.