Speech at Contrarian Prize ceremony
Monday 18 March 2013
Thank you Peter
My Lords, Ladies and Gentlemen
Good evening. I am delighted to see so many of you here on this special occasion.
There is a serious problem in our country. According to the latest poll by Ipsos Mori, just one in five Britons trust politicians to tell the truth. That is lower than journalists, bankers and estate agents.
But it is not just the political class that is in the dock. We have endured financial mismanagement, the Jimmy Savile affair, the hacking of phones on an industrial scale, lack of confidence in the police following the Hillsborough cover-up, and the scandalous neglect of NHS patients in Mid-Staffordshire. To add insult to injury, we cannot even have confidence over what is contained in our frozen lasagne.
Our great institutions have let us down. It is like seeing a beautiful country house at the end of a long-winding driveway, only to find that as you draw closer, it is crumbling to bits.
There is a “trust deficit”.
The British public are fed-up
It would be easy to despair, to resign oneself to believing that our leaders are all a pusillanimous bunch of stooges driven by a desire to climb the greasy pole. It is those that never dare to question the status quo who seem to prosper. The conformists are rewarded with senior positions in government as well as powerful positions in quangos and in the media.
The system by its very nature is designed to stifle debate and to force those who wish to get on in public life to toe the party line. Too often the price of a “successful” career is that personal integrity is outsourced to the Whips office or its corporate equivalent.
Where are our whistleblowers, our leaders of principle, our campaigners for freedom of information and human rights? Where do we find our heroes of conscience who go against the grain and put their head above the parapet. They cannot be silenced or bought-off.
They believe that it is not the position that you hold that is important but what you do with it, that counts.
12 Angry Men
It reminds me of the 1957 Henry Fonda movie classic - “12 Angry Men”. A young 18 year-old man is on trial for his life for allegedly stabbing his father to death. The judge asks the jury comprising 12 men to retire and come to a verdict. They can only declare the accused guilty if all 12 agree and it is beyond reasonable doubt.
A number of the men quickly reveal their prejudices about how the kids “that crawl out from these places are real scum”.
The forman of the jury calls for an initial vote to be taken. When he asks who believes the defendant is guilty, 11 men raise their hands without hesitation. When he then asks who finds the accused not guilty, Henry Fonda raises his hand. He is alone. He is brave. He is a Contrarian.
Through forensic deconstruction of the evidence he then convinces his fellow jurors, one by one, to change their decision to not guilty.
It is often the way. The Contrarian takes a stand, shifts the parameters of the debate and their initial view – considered quirky, unconventional, different - then becomes mainstream.
The British public are crying out for authenticity, innovative ideas, lateral thinking and boldness. The rebel with a cause. The dissenter who takes a stand and makes a sacrifice by doing so.
But there is nothing to acknowledge those that speak up for what they believe in and suffer as a result.
I believe that it is important that such figures be recognised and that is why I decided to establish the “Contrarian Prize”. This Prize is not about party politics. It is about individuals in public life, be they politicians, journalists, activists, business people, religious leaders and others who demonstrate independence, courage and sacrifice.
People often ask me “why are you bothering with this?” What’s in it for you?
There are two key personal drivers for me:
First, I believe in standing up for what you feel is right. I remember two days after the decision to invade Iraq in 2003, I was interviewed by Jon Snow on Channel 4 news. I had recently been selected as a parliamentary candidate and the official stance of my party was in favour of the invasion. I was against it and I explained why, openly. There are times in one’s life where one comes to a fork in the road. You can either take the path of conviction or the path of convenience.
Second, I want to engender a debate amongst the British people about the kinds of values we expect to see from those in authority. That is why all nominations for the Contrarian Prize come directly from members of the public.
I am pleased to say that this vision has been shared by a handful of like-minded individuals that have come together to work on this project because they feel that recognising such people sends out a strong and positive message. To quote that great contemporary philosopher, the pop-star, Rihanna, “there are Diamonds in the sky”.
There are no corporates or large foundations behind this prize. The costs have been met by me personally, and a small team of dedicated and tremendously busy people have generously volunteered their time, expertise and resources to make this venture a success. To coin a phrase, This is the “Big Society” in action.
The Contrarian Prize is to be awarded annually. To be eligible candidates must be active in British public life. They are assessed against four criteria. First, they must have demonstrated independence of thought and judgement. Second, they should have displayed courage and conviction in their actions. Third, they should have put principle above personal advancement made a sacrifice,. Fourth, they should have introduced new ideas into the public realm and had an impact on the public debate
Making an objective and informed assessment of each candidate against these specific criteria meant that drawing together the right panel of judges was of critical importance.
I was looking for a broad range of professional experience, political balance, and diversity. I could have not wished for a better team. Tim Montgomerie - Comment editor of the Times, Pamela Gawler-Wright - one of the leading psychotherapists in the country, Peter Waine - the founder of the non-executive headhunting firm Hanson Green and Chairman of the CPRE, and Jane Furniss - the Chief Executive of the Independent Police Complaints Commission.
We received scores of nominations from the public, and the judging panel approached the difficult and important task of agreeing a shortlist and then a winner, with utter professionalism, insight and most importantly, an open mind. The deliberations were thorough and enjoyable. I would like to thank them for all their efforts.
We were clear that we did not want this to be a monetary prize but something unique, symbolic, and meaningful that captured the essence of what we were seeking to achieve.
That is why I decided to approach the renowned pop-art sculptor Mauro Perucchetti, who is famous for his distinctive, large, brightly coloured resin sculptures and has addressed a number of thorny issues including cloning, contemporary consumerism and war in his pieces.
As soon as I explained what we were looking to do he was delighted to help. He has very generously donated one of his iconic works, “The Three Politicians” which was recently exhibited in a giant public installation outside the Louvre in Paris.
The piece that you see here on the table is not only a beautiful work of art, it is also wonderfully appropriate. “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.
Mauro is currently working hard on putting together his latest exhibition and is travelling so unfortunately cannot be with us tonight and so he has sent us this message.
There are a number of people to thank and you will see a slide a little later that does just that. Without their help, generosity, time and support we would not be here this evening.
So, my Lords, ladies and gentlemen, thank you once again for being here at this inaugural prize-giving ceremony. This is the first step in what we hope will become a “key event” in the annual calendar. Please spread the word and have a wonderful evening.