Speech at Contrarian Prize ceremony at Bernard Jacobson Gallery - 25 June 2019
Thank you Julia
Your Excellencies, my Lords, ladies and gentlemen.
It is wonderful to be back at the Bernard Jacobson gallery for the Contrarian Prize Award Ceremony surrounded by this superb Bruce Mclean retrospective. Do take the time to enjoy it. Now Bernard is a great supporter of the prize and is himself a contrarian.
Whilst he has worked with the likes of Henri Matisse, David Hockney and Roy Litchenstein, he has never followed the herd in saluting the conventionally popular. That is why he was one of the first to spot the brilliance of artists such as American, Robert Motherwell, and the contemporary British artist, William Tillyer, with whom he has worked for over 50 years. I want to thank you Bernard for your continued support and Robert Delaney and the rest of the team here for making this possible.
I am also delighted that one of the most highly-respected broadcasters in the country, the one and only Jeremy Paxman, has joined us to present the prize this evening. Jeremy changed the face of political broadcasting in this country and gave us all many memorable moments during his 25 years as the anchor of Newsnight. As we ponder the current Conservative leadership battle, one’s thoughts inevitably turn to Jeremy’s memorable exchange with one candidate during the 1997 contest. Michael Howard was quizzed about the whether he overruled Derek Lewis, Head of The Prison Service, in relation to the suspension of the governor of Parkhurst prison. Jeremy just wanted the answer to one simple question...Let’s take a look. [play clip] Pure class. Jeremy it’s a pleasure to have you here.
The Contrarian Prize is now in its seventh year and the thing that I really love about these evenings is the mix of people from different backgrounds ranging from business, finance, academia, the arts, law, media and the dance music industry. No matter what your field, we’re all here to champion people that stand up for their beliefs. I get such a buzz from you all being here, especially when you get riled up about which candidates made the shortlist and which missed out. Thank you for coming.
The nature of discourse
Brexit and the concomitant collapse of trust in the political class have been perhaps the defining stories of the last few years. But they are also symptoms of a much wider malaise in the political discourse in this country and the divide between the “establishment” – including both politicians and the media – and a large part of the population.
I recently read a book entitled National Populism: The Revolt Against Liberal Democracy, by Matthew Goodwin and Roger Eatwell. They argue that four key elements have driven an increasing number to turn their backs on traditional politics.
First is rising political distrust, as many citizens feel that they have no voice in the national conversation. Second, heightened immigration levels have led an increasing number to conclude that their traditional culture, values and way of life are changing too rapidly, which is disorientating. Third, rising inequality has led to a sense of relative deprivation, of ‘Them and Us,’ which is exacerbated by a loss of job security in an era of rapid technological change. Fourth, the bond between voters and parties they have traditionally voted for has broken down.
Just look at the recent local elections, where 900 independent councillors were returned and the European Elections where the Brexit Party went from a political start-up to win almost a third of the vote in six weeks.
Something about today’s polarised public life seems to have magnified certain human traits that American psychologist Jonathan Haidt explains in his book “The Righteous Mind.” He argues that humans are hard-wired to be moralistic, judgemental and self-righteous, to which anyone who has spent time on social media can surely attest!
This morality binds us into groups but it also blinds us to other points of view, meaning that we lose the ability to think for ourselves. Liberals and conservatives, globalists and nationalists, leavers and remainers. If you are in one group you cannot understand the other, indeed you are forbidden from doing so, lest you be kicked out of your tribe.
However, there are a handful of independent-minded people that eschew groupthink and speak out because they are convinced that they are right. Others, may come to realise over time that the tribal position that they have previously adhered to is wrong. It takes maturity to change your mind on an issue. But departing the tribe takes guts because of the vitriolic abuse and personal attacks that the leaver is subjected to. Reputations are smeared and careers may be jeopardised or even lost.
Contrarians and society
Such Contrarians have always played a vital role in society, changing the debate and altering the direction of policy as they fight against the prevailing orthodoxy.
Milicent Fawcett, leader of the suffragist movement is a good example. She peacefully campaigned for women’s suffrage for half a century which was finally secured in 1918 when the Representation of the People Act granted women above the age of 30 the right to vote.
Then there was Martin Luther, the German Catholic priest, who in 1517 challenged the practice of selling indulgences, whereby an individual could secure redemption for sins committed in exchange for donations to the Catholic Church. When leant on by the powers that be, he refused to renounce his writings and was excommunicated by the Pope and condemned as an outlaw by the Holy Roman Emperor. His ideas began the Protestant Reformation, which had a profound impact on global Christianity.
What the prize represents
The Contrarian Prize which is awarded biennially, was established to recognise the kinds of figures I have mentioned. All nominations come from the public for individuals in British public life that have demonstrated independence of thought, courage and conviction in their actions, made a personal sacrifice for their beliefs, and introduced new ideas into the public realm or had an impact on the public debate.
There are no corporates or philanthropic foundations behind this prize. The costs are funded by a handful of individuals including myself which is in keeping with the ethos of maintaining its independence.
The winner of the prize is invited to deliver the Contrarian Prize lecture which provides a platform for the winner to engage in a public conversation encouraging debate.
Now judging the prize requires an open mind and I would like to thank the judges for the impassioned, searching and convivial discussions in determining the shortlist and the winner from the scores of nominations we received.
The prize itself is represented 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 antithesis to this.
Contrarians change the world
Contrarians question and doubt. They think independently and drive a coach and horses through conventional wisdom. Dismissed as oddballs, fruitcakes or soothsayers, they may successfully change the minds of a few. But, if you can change the minds of a few you can change the view of a city. If you can change the view of a city you can change the outlook of a country. And if you can change the outlook of a country, well, then you can change the world.