Speech at Contrarian Prize ceremony
Wednesday 2 April 2014
My Lords, ladies and gentlemen good evening.
I am delighted to see that so many of you have braved the dust particles from the Sahara desert to be here on this special occasion at the wonderful Coll & Cortes gallery that is kindly hosting us this evening.
The world is changing rapidly. Moisés Naím, in his book The End of Power, argues that power is shifting not only from West to East and from North to South, but from presidential palaces to public squares and from corporate behemoths to nimble start-ups. It is not only shifting and dispersing. It is also decaying. Those with power today are more constrained in what they can do and more at risk of losing it than ever before.
In a world where social media has allowed people to take control of the means of communication, traditional parties and their top-down hierarchies are suffering. and scrutiny of public figures has never been greater.
Only one percent of the British public belongs to a political party. In contrast the RSPB has 1 million members and the National trust has 4 million.
The only party that is seeing its membership rise is UKIP. Part of its appeal is the plain speaking of its leader, Nigel Farage. Irrespective of whether you agree with him or not - and I personally don’t on many things - one is in no doubt about his position on issues and that appeals to people.
38 Degrees, a not-for-profit organisation dedicated to organising people online and campaigning on specific issues can assemble the online masses overnight. It mobilised more than half a million people in 2011 to oppose the government's attempt to sell off part of the Forestry Commission estate. It won.
Public confidence in the great institutions of our country is at its lowest ebb in light of phone hacking, the ongoing scandals in the financial sector, and failings in parts of the NHS.
People are crying out for leaders of conviction rather than lackeys to their political or corporate masters.
Too many people in British public life are “shackled by ambition”. But there are the few who seek more than short-term career advancement. These are the people of ideas, that challenge, probe, and agitate for change. They are in the business of shaping the future, not of enjoying the comforts of a ministerial Jaguar or Toyota Prius as the case may be.
What does being Contrarian mean?
I believe we can divide Contrarians into two categories. The words of William Shakespeare come to mind. “some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatest thrust upon them.” The same is true of Contrarians.
There are those who rail against the system because they have an alternative vision to that accepted by the mainstream and wish to achieve change through the force of their argument.
The late, great, Tony Benn was clearly in the first category and was one of the towering British Contrarians of our times. His politics were very different to mine. indeed they were different to many in his own party. He was a member of the Labour movement, a socialist of the old school, a man of conviction who had no truck with Blairite managerialism as he saw it. The Tory Press called him the most dangerous man in Britain. But arguing about whether you agreed with him or not is really to miss the point.
Here was a man who consistently stood up for what he believed in. Indeed he fought for several years to renounce the peerage he inherited from his father so that he could contest a seat for the House of Commons which he then held for 51 years. Fearless, tireless, relentless and unapologetic in making the case for change. The Economist newspaper in its obituary last week referred to him as a member of the “Awkward squad”. If being an unyielding advocate for change and advancing one’s sincerely held point of view is being “awkward” then I believe the British public would like to see a lot more of it.
Then there are those who have Contrarianism thrust upon them. They go about their business with no desire or intention to rock the boat. But there comes a defining moment when they come to a decision point. They can either “stay silent or speak out”.
This is where we find our whistleblowers that wish to expose wrongdoing and individuals in public life who, having been loyal to their parties throughout their careers, find that they have to take a stand on a specific issue and go against the party or institutional line. Notable examples are Robin Cook who resigned from the Labour government over the Iraq war and Giles Fraser who resigned as Canon Chancellor of St Paul’s over the forced removal of protestors from the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral.
It takes courage to be a Contrarian. The whistleblower who highlights concerns is ostracised by senior managers and colleagues alike. The part of the brain that expects tribal loyalty feels uncomfortable with the perception, however misplaced, that one of its own is breaking ranks. Then there is the potential impact on the future career prospects of the individual as well as their family. It takes a lot to speak up in the face of wrongdoing.
Both types of Contrarian have an important role to play in British public life.
Why is it important?
It is after all the Contrarians who change the world. They are the ones that challenge the accepted orthodoxy and highlight its failings. But what makes them different from critics or pundits of which there are so many, is not only that they take personal risk and make sacrifices for their beliefs, but that that unashamedly offer alternative solutions. They put their head above the parapet by advocating idiosyncratic positions which, in time, become mainstream.
Think of Emmiline Pankhurst a pioneer of the suffragette movement who campaigned for the right of women to vote or Peter Tatchell who is here this evening who has spent his whole life fighting for human rights at times putting himself in physical danger. Contrarians are the yeast in the mix.
So in its second year the Contrarian Prize continues to be as relevant as ever. I set up this prize for two reasons. First, because I wanted to recognise people who truly stand up for what they believe in. Second, because I wanted to engage the British public in a discussion about the values we expect from those in positions of power and influence in British public life.
Members of the public nominate individuals in British public life against four criteria. Independence of thought, courage and conviction in their actions, the sacrifice they have made and their introduction of new ideas into the public realm or their an impact on the public debate.
The winner gets to keep this stunning sculpture generously donated by the renowned pop artist Mauro Perucchetti who exhibits all over the world and whose pieces sell for hundreds of thousands of pounds. When I went to collect it I did momentarily consider absconding with the prize but my mother advised me that it would not go down too well.
The prize is entitled “The Three Politicians” - the one who does not see, the one who does not hear and the one who does not speak out”. The Contrarian is the opposite of all of these. I am delighted that he prize will be presented shortly by the highly-acclaimed journalist Will Hutton who will be introduced by Jane.
Past year – website, lecture, CP in the mix
We have achieved a lot in the past year. Having held the inaugural prize-giving ceremony last March, we revamped the website and held the inaugural Contrarian Prize lecture which was delivered by Michael Woodford and superbly hosted by Cass Business School. Michael, who I am delighted to say has especially flown in to be here this evening with his wife Nuncy, gave a thoroughly gripping account of how he discovered a USD1.7bn fraud at Olympus and how he confronted the board and ended up being sacked for doing the right thing.
My aim has always been to take the message of the Contrarian Prize to the broadest possible audience and that is why I decided to host the “Contrarian Prize in the Mix” party at the Horse and Groom in Shoreditch last December. Now some of you know that I have a love for House music and I DJ and I was delighted to spin tunes on the night alongside Nick Stevenson from Mixmag who is here this evening and Greg Sawyer from Defected Records.
The judges have done another magnificent job this year and I would like to thank them. I would also like to make particular mention of the highly acclaimed Sunday Times journalist and writer, David James Smith, who has brought valuable insight and perspective to what is a very balanced and effective panel.
There are no corporations or big foundations behind this prize. All the costs involved in funding it apart from the sculpture itself are personally financed by me and I am delighted to say that since last year a number of private individuals have said that they would like to contribute because they are inspired by the idea.
I would like to end by thanking Coll and Cortes for allowing us to hold the ceremony in their beautiful gallery. As soon as I saw it I know it would be perfect. I would like to invite Andreas Pampoulides from the gallery to say a few words.