There is a serious problem in our country. According to a poll by Ipsos Mori in February this year, 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.
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” which is now entering its second year. The Prize is not about party politics, but about individuals in public life, be they politicians, journalists, activists, business people, religious leaders and others who demonstrate independence, courage and sacrifice.
The inaugural winner, announced in March this year, was Michael Woodford, the former President and CEO of the Japanese industrial giant, Olympus. Woodford blew the whistle of a $1.7billion fraud and was sacked for doing so. He put his life in danger and sacrificed his 30 year career with the company because he chose to do the right thing.
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.
There are no corporates or large foundations behind this prize. The costs in establishing the prize have been met by me personally, and a small team of dedicated and tremendously busy people generously volunteer their time, expertise and resources to make this venture a success.
The Contrarian Prize is 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.
The prize itself has been donated by renowned pop art sculptor Mauro Perucchetti, who has provided one of his iconic works, “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. Unique, symbolic, and meaningful, it captures the essence of the behaviour we are seeking to recognise.
So I urge you to nominate an individual in British public life that you feel is worthy of this accolade by visiting www.contrarianprize.com. Nominations close on December 31 2013.