Contrarian thinking Is the key to progress – speech at Contrarian Prize ceremony
18 June 2015
Thank you Peter. You are, as ever, far too generous. My Lords, Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen
The Contrarian Prize is now in its third year and I could not think of a more beautiful setting for this special occasion. Maison Assouline is one of my favourite haunts in this great city and I would like to thank Nazneen, Aida, Eduardo and Emilia here at Assouline for their consummate professionalism and support.
I am absolutely delighted that we are joined by Jonathan Dimbleby who has taken time out of his horrendously busy schedule to be here this evening to present the prize to the winner. Jonathan. Thank you.
It is rare to bring together such an eclectic group of people from the worlds of finance, business, the media, politics, the charitable sector, the arts, academia and dance music. What a fitting time for us to meet. On this very day 200 years ago Napoleon was defeated by the armies of the seventh coalition at Waterloo, marking the end of an imperial ambition that had engulfed Europe for two decades. Then, as now, biting the bottom that sits on you is important.
So is using one’s critical faculties to question. Just reflect on the general election result. The political commentariat en masse, was convinced that we would have a hung parliament. How wrong they all were.
The eminent scientist, Albert Einstein said that. “Blind belief in authority is the greatest enemy of truth.” The war in Iraq comes to mind. 12 years on, having spent 2 trillion dollars and after the loss of almost 200k lives, where are we now?
I took a public stand against the Iraq war in 2002, shortly after being selected as a parliamentary candidate for the second time. It meant going against the party line. But there are some things that are more important than naked career advancement. Robin Cook, a Labour Cabinet Minister, at the time, shared that view when he resigned from the government. It is easy to say “I thought about voting against the war”, as many have done. But keeping schtum is a decision in itself.
Emile Zola would agree. The French writer wrote an open letter, “J’accuse”, to the President of the French Republic in 1898 protesting the innocence of Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish army officer who had been wrongly imprisoned for supposedly passing intelligence to the Germans. But it was Georges Picquart, the head of French Intelligence, who uncovered the fact that Dreyfus had been wrongly convicted on the basis of spurious evidence. The powers that be hid the truth and Picquart was banished to North Africa, his career in tatters.
Speaking truth to power is not for the faint-hearted. But as the academic Noam Chomsky points out, “Power” probably knows the truth already but is busily suppressing, limiting or distorting it. Think of the Hillsborough cover up and the disappearance of a dossier detailing potential perpetrators of child sexual abuse.
Then are those give a voice to the voiceless. Emmeline Pankhurst, the leader of the suffragette movement who fought for the right of women to have the vote and Mary Wollstonecraft, who championed feminism in the 18th century, are cases in point.
What do we call people who put their head above the parapet or go against the grain. Various terms have been used: dissident, radical, maverick, loose cannon, rebel, troublemaker, misfit and malcontent. But the term Contrarian seems fitting because it encapsulates two types of individuals - the troubled whistleblower and the free-thinking dissenter.
The first, goes about his business without any innate desire to be difficult or challenge the status quo. But then a disturbing discovery is made which leads to a decision point. Is my conscience more important than my career? Michael Woodford, the inaugural winner of the Contrarian Prize, is a case in point. He worked at the electronics giant, Olympus, for 30 years becoming the first Western President and CEO in company’s history. He went to Japan, discovered a $1.7bn fraud, tried to investigate it, challenged the board over it, and was fired for doing so.
The second type, is the individual that consistently takes a stand on issues that he/she feels strongly about. The 2014 winner of the Contrarian Prize, the human rights lawyer, Clive Stafford Smith, is a good example. He has never shied away from exposing and combating injustice. He has campaigned tirelessly for the abolition of the death penalty in the US representing over 300 individuals on death row and called for the closure of Guantanamo Bay in the face of public opprobrium.
The Contrarian eschews groupthink, is a first mover, challenges the accepted orthodoxy and may succeed in achieving a paradigm shift. The establishment will shun and smear the individual that is seen to break away from the pack. Solitude, resilience, principle and self-belief are required. So is courage. Douglas Carswell, the independent-minded MP (who is here this evening), and was recently rounded on, yards from Parliament, by a mob of thugs can attest to that.
The Contrarian Prize aims to recognise individuals in British public life that demonstrate Independence of thought; courage and conviction in their actions; make a sacrifice; and have an impact on the public debate. Nominations come from the public via the website contrarianprize.com.
People often ask me why I bothered to set this up and whether I would not be better advised to spend my spare time on a sun lounger in a swanky beachside bar in Ibiza. There are two reasons. First, I want to stimulate a debate amongst people about the values they want to see from figures in public life and second, I want to ensure that individuals that stand up for what they believe are recognised.
There are no corporates, or foundations behind this prize. The majority of the costs are personally financed by me along with donations from handful of private individuals that have been captivated by the idea.
I must thank the judges for their advice and support. The debate is always robust, wide-ranging and in-depth. We are continually forced to think and rethink the definition of Contrarianism based on the scores of submissions we receive and I think that the diversity of this year’s shortlist reflects that.
Last November Clive Stafford Smith delivered the second Contrarian Prize lecture. The lecture provides a platform to the winner to stimulate debate and Clive provided an entertaining, provocative and thought-provoking address.
CP In the Mix
We consistently aim to engage as broad an audience as possible with the Prize. Now as some of you may know, I have a love for House music so whilst certain prizes host white tie banquets in Oslo, we host Contrarian Prize in the Mix dance party in Shoreditch. I must thank Greg Sawyer, from Defected Records and Nick Stevenson from Mixmag for taking to the decks alongside me last December to spin some tunes.
The prize itself is generously donated by the renowned contemporary artist Mauro Perucchetti who I am delighted to say is here this evening with his wife Lorena. Mauro has exhibited across the globe and his pieces sell for hundreds of thousands of pounds. He is famous for his distinctive, large, brightly-coloured resin sculptures and his work has addressed a number of thorny issues including cloning, contemporary consumerism and war.
We wanted a prize that was unique, symbolic and meaningful and Mauro being the archetypal Contrarian himself, provided his iconic piece The Three Politicians”, The one who does not see, the one who does not hear and the one who does not speak. The Contrarian is the opposite of this.
If you want a glimpse into the future, listen to what the Contrarians are saying today. They do not seek plaudits and you may disagree with them. Driven by an innate desire to do what they believe is right, they are like the flamboyant lining of a tailored suit. For it is through argument and disputation that progress is made.