The unreasonable Contrarian challenges the status quo
Speech at the Contrarian Prize 2017 prize-giving ceremony at Bernard Jacobson gallery – 16 May 2017
My Lords, ladies and gentlemen
I am delighted to see so many of you here on this special occasion in the fifth year of the Contrarian Prize. I must begin by thanking Bernard Jacobson, himself a contrarian, for hosting us in his wonderful gallery. He has championed a number of artists who have gone against the grain including the great William Tillyer, who he recently exhibited here. Thank you also to Robert Delaney and the rest of the team here for all their support.
Peter will introduce Sir Simon Jenkins in a few moments, but Simon I would like to express my personal gratitude to you for being here. You have always spoken your mind so it is appropriate that you should present the prize to the winner this evening.
As I was thinking about my opening remarks, I recalled my visit, last November to the KGB museum in Vilnius. As I descended the steps to the basement of the grey, austere looking building, the first thing I saw were the uniforms of two prison guards hanging in the room to my right. As I walked into each of the cells and read the stories on the walls of the prisoners of conscience who had been held there, i felt physically ill. This was a place where political prisoners were interned, tortured and killed for challenging the communist regime. It was sobering to think that they paid the price for standing up for their beliefs with their lives. There were contrarians.
Why I set up the prize
In this great country of ours we are supposedly able to think freely and say what we want. But as Bertrand Russell observed, “Most people would rather die than think”. I decided to set up this prize following my decade long flirtation with politics. Shortly after I was selected as a parliamentary candidate for the second time, I decided to speak out against the Iraq war as the drumbeat towards invasion became louder. A number of my friends advised me that I was putting my political future in jeopardy and that I should keep my head down. But what is the point of being in public life if you sacrifice your principles simply to advance your career?
Now, in the fifth year of the prize, the tectonic plates of international politics have shifted in an unprecedented manner. Brexit and the election of Donald Trump have turned the conventional order on its head. And let’s not forget the crushing defeat of the established political parties in the French presidential election. Why was this all such a shock? How did the establishment fail to see it coming?
There are, in my view, three root causes: Groupthink; the hubris of the elite; and the closing down of debate. Let me briefly take each in turn.
It was the psychologist, Irving Janis, who first coined the term Groupthink, in 1972. His argument was that members of a group value being part of it more than anything else. "To preserve the clubby atmosphere, group members, suppress personal doubts, silence dissenters, and follow the group leader's suggestions". The emphasis is on conformity.
Groupthink allows a distorted view of reality to develop unchallenged, which can result in fiascos like the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Perhaps the most important recent example is the decision to hold a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU with a binary question posed to the electorate. This subsequently resulted in myriad interpretations of what voters actually meant when they marked their X on the voting paper.
The second cause is the hubris of the elite. As Harvard Professor, Michael Sandell, argues, the winners within the system consider their success their own doing, a measure of their virtue, and look down upon those less fortunate than themselves. This, in turn, fuels anger in those left behind and frustration at the political establishment's failure to comprehend their legitimate grievances.
Third, is the closing down of debate by claiming that what certain people say is offensive. University students have been particularly active in “no-platforming” speakers on campuses whose views they disagree with. It reminds me of “The Smile” an iconic 1974 artwork by the Polish pop-artist Jurry Zielinski who opposed the Polish government in the late 1960s. It depicts a mouth sewn shut with three xxx highlighting the silencing of dissent.
It is all too easy to refuse to listen to views that we consider unpalatable preferring the comfort of the echo chamber. But discussion is valuable, indeed essential, for its own sake. Two protagonists in an argument might not convert or convince each other but it is rare that they will leave holding exactly the same position which they began with.
I would argue that this combination of forces helped create the environment in which discontent was able to fester, until it found expression in the Brexit and Trump votes, and the wholesale rejection of traditional parties in the recent French Presidential Election.
Many of you may have attended the special Contrarian Prize debate last November at Cass Business School entitled “Contrarianism in an age of conformity” which explored the erosion of free speech. I was honoured to be able to welcome a highly distinguished panel of speakers to examine many of these topics in a very high quality and wide-ranging discussion. If you weren’t there please do watch it on the Contrarian Prize website. It is thought-provoking.
Given the revolutionary period we are living through, the polemicist and political activist Tom Paine comes to mind. Paine was an extraordinary figure who came to play an instrumental role in two revolutions, the American and the French. With the publication of his leaflet “Common Sense” in 1776 which advocated republicanism and championed independence from Britain, he became the intellectual father of the American Revolution
He then moved to France where his 1971 treatise “Rights of Man” directly challenged the position of the ruling class. Paine was convicted for sedition and libel and then thrown into prison by the French authorities.
He was driven by the belief that ordinary people can indeed make sound judgments on major political issues. Maligned and execrated by his rivals, when he died only six people attended his funeral. But as the late Christopher Hitchens pointed out, “don't expect to be thanked. The life of an oppositionist is supposed to be difficult. Solitude must be welcomed not feared.”
That contempt for the status quo and desire to refashion the established order, was what drove a fearless black woman, named Rosa Parks, to refuse to give up her seat to a white passenger on a bus in Montgomery Alabama on 1 December 1955. That simple but courageous act became the catalyst for the black civil rights movement that followed. Ordinary people can change the course of history.
The ability to think independently is key. So is the courage to tell people what they do not wish to hear. But the Contrarian is not a professional naysayer. Being contrarian is something you are and not something you do.
The Contrarian Prize seeks to recognise individuals in British public life that demonstrate Independence of thought, courage and conviction in their actions, make a sacrifice for their principles, and introduce new ideas into the public realm or have an impact on the public debate.
The prize is symbolised by an iconic sculpture designed by the renowned pop artist Mauro Perucchetti. It is entitled, "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 all three.
This prize is not backed by any wealthy foundations or corporates. It is largely funded by me personally along with a handful of individuals who have generously put their hand in their pocket because they think acknowledging such people is important.
Nominations for the prize come from members of the public via the website www.contrarianprize.com and I must thank the judges for their consummate professionalism in agreeing the shortlist and the winner. It is not about whether the judges agree with the particular views of the individuals that have been considered. We make a judgement about whether they have stood up for their beliefs.
This is important because as the great George Bernard Shaw observed, “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world, the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”