If there was ever a clear example of a contrarian, Malala Yousafzai - a 15 year old girl from Pakistan’s Swat Valley - is it. Malala who has consistently fought for the right of girls in her area to be allowed to be educated, was brutally shot through the head by Taliban militants on October 9 and is now recovering in a Birmingham hospital. Whilst the actions of these zealots has sickened the world, the courage of this child has moved and inspired it.
So where are our British contrarians and why is it important to recognise them? The trust and reputation of key institutions within our country has reached a nadir. Parliament after the expenses scandal, the press following phone-hacking, the police in the wake the Hillsborough cover-up, the banks given the financial crisis, and now that bastion of British public life - the BBC - over the Jimmy Saville affair.
Self-serving, corrupt, crooks and legalised thieves were just some of the words used to describe our leaders when I personally vox-popped people randomly on the street. The paltry turnout in the recent Police and Crime Commissioner elections highlights how disengaged the public has become from the ruling classes. It would be easy to despair, to resign oneself to believing that they are a pusillanimous bunch of stooges driven by a desire to climb the greasy pole. But they are not “all the same”. There are certain individuals in British public life who do stand up for what they believe and as a corollary, sacrifice personal career progression.
Taking a stand
The rebellion on reform of the House of Lords in July in which 91 Conservative MPs opposed the government’s desire to move towards a chamber where 80% of peers would be elected, is a case in point. Whether or not one agrees with this position, the very fact that these MPs took a stand should be recognised. Indeed two of them who were ministerial aides - Connor Burns who resigned and Angie Bray who was sacked - paid the price. Jesse Norman, a philosophical architect of Cameroonism, who would almost certainly have been tipped for office in the recent reshuffle, put paid to any chance of that as the ringleader of the rebels.
The same desire to act on principle was displayed in the recent rebellion led by 51 Conservative MPs who wish to see a real-terms cut in the EU budget on the grounds that the behemoth should cut its coat according to its cloth.
Such courage is not new. Robin Cook displayed it when he resigned his Cabinet position as leader of the House of Commons in 2003 when he refused to support the Iraq war. Conservative whip John Randall showed similar resolve when he too resigned his position as he did not believe that military action at the time was justified.
These individuals could not be bought off. This trait is being exhibited by an increasing number of politicians in an era where the public can scrutinise the behaviour of MPs more closely than ever before. It may also be due to the fact that a number of MPs of the 2010 intake got into Parliament by ploughing their own furrow, not as a result of the largesse of their party’s leadership. That has led them to feel more liberated.
Away from politics, a good example of a Contrarian is Giles Fraser who resigned his position in October 2011 as Canon Chancellor of St Paul’s in protest over the forced removal of “Occupy” protestors camped outside the cathedral. He is currently the parish priest of St Mary’s Newington in South London.
Another is the scientific author Simon Singh. In 2008 he was sued for libel by the British Chiropractic Association for criticising it for defending some of its members who use treatments on children with conditions such as colic and asthma where he felt there was little evidence. Instead of simply withdrawing his claims, Singh fought in the courts on the grounds of the defence of fair comment and won. It cost him £200,000 and two years of his life but it highlighted the importance of the principle of open scientific discussion.
The British public deserves leaders of substance. Indeed the founder of the Independent newspaper, Andreas Whittam Smith, is so concerned that he has established a movement entitled “Democracy 2015”, which aims to encourage a new generation of non-professional politicians from a variety of backgrounds to run as independent candidates at the next general election.
The Contrarian Prize seeks to recognise individuals in British public life who put principle above personal advancement, demonstrate independence of thought, display courage and conviction in their actions, and introduce new ideas into the public realm. Any member of the public can nominate via the website and the deadline is 31 December 2012. A shortlist will be announced in the New Year with the prize being awarded in March. History may, in time, judge such individuals to be statesmen.
The writer is a Chartered Accountant and former Conservative parliamentary candidate.