Ali Miraj is a Chartered Accountant, a former Conservative parliamentary candidate and the founder of the Contrarian Prize.
British politics is broken. Those in any doubt should reflect on the result in the Clacton by-election, when UKIP secured its first parliamentarian in Westminster. During the campaign, an article by a Conservative establishment insider masquerading as a political journalist, which was highly derogatory about the future of the seaside town and dismissive of the concerns of its inhabitants, served to highlight how disconnected the ruling class has become from the ruled.
UKIP is busily selling candy sticks to its supporters emblazoned with the words: “it’s time to rock politics”. At present, on the mid to high teens in recent opinion polls, it is Nigel Farage who has forced the Prime Minister to harden his line on Europe, and to talk tough on controlling immigration in an effort to placate his restless backbenchers.
I started out in politics in 1998 as a local councillor at the age of 23 and later contested two parliamentary elections. During that time: I encountered numerous voters who when asked for their support would retort, “What ‘s the point. You’re all the same.” The charge is not without merit. As Peter Oborne has highlighted in his seminal work, the Triumph of The Political Class, during the past 20 years we have witnessed the development of a coterie of political insiders who have more in common with one another than they do with those they govern.
It is not just the leaders of the three established political parties are all political insiders with little or no experience outside the Westminster bubble – it is also the advisers that they choose to surround themselves with. Nowadays, politics for many is regarded as a vocation. The corollary of this is that those who pursue it have every incentive to toe the party line in order to court preferment and advance their political career.
There are so few of the type of independent-minded MP’s that A.J.P. Taylor lauds in The Trouble Makers: Dissent in Foreign Policy since 1792-1939. These figures not only critiqued government policy; they unashamedly offered radical alternatives to it. Some argue that it is easier to speak out as a public figure if you are protected by the blanket of personal wealth. This is a fallacy. The desire to effect meaningful change is not a consequence of money, it is one of mindset.
John Ball, the English priest who played a key role in the Peasants Revolt in 1381 and was hung, drawn and quartered for doing so, and the revolutionary philosopher and activist Tom Paine, who was smeared by the British conservative establishment, were not men of means but men of ideas and conviction. Robin Cook, who resigned in protest over the Iraq War, was similarly-minded. The principal drive of so many of our current leaders is that it is the natural order of things that, ipso facto, they should be in charge. Gone is the meritocracy and revolutionary zeal of the Thatcher era.
But it is not only politics that the public is exasperated with. They have endured malfeasance in the financial sector; the phone-hacking scandal; the Hillsborough cover-up and now an investigation into child abuse which is yet to commence, given the twice-botched process of choosing an appropriate chair.
The British public deserve leaders of principle and vision who are prepared to take personal risk to advance their cause. I believe that such figures do, exist and that is why I founded the Contrarian Prize – now in its third year – to honour them. Nominations come from the public via the website www.contrarianprize.com.
The 2014 winner was the human rights lawyer, Clive Stafford Smith, who founded the UK legal action charity, Reprieve, and who has never shied away from exposing and combating injustice. He has campaigned tirelessly for the abolition of the death penalty in the US for decades, and has represented over 300 individuals on death row, achieving success in all but six cases. He has taken five cases to the supreme court, and prevailed in all of them. He has also represented scores of detainees in Guantanamo Bay and consistently called for its closure.
Stafford Smith, educated at Radley College and offered a place at Cambridge, could have chosen a conventional path which would have brought him riches and status. But he turned down his place at Britain’s top university to go and study in the US, because he wanted to learn about the American justice system. He later eschewed the lucrative world of corporate law choosing to work for next to nothing defending people on death row given the absence of legal aid for appeals against the death penalty.
Early in his career he met Kris Maharaj, a British businessman who was convicted for the double murder of a business associate and his son in a Florida hotel room and sentenced to death. Stafford Smith has fearlessly chronicled every aspect of the mishandled trial – including the fact the first trial judge had been bribed, and that key pieces of evidence were highly questionable in his gripping and disturbing book, “Injustice”. British public life desperately needs figures like him, and I encourage you to consider who you believe is worthy of this accolade.
Clive Stafford Smith will deliver the Contrarian Prize lecture on 19 November at Cass Business School. To register to attend visit www.contrarian prize.com