The world is witnessing a period of volatility and change, the likes of which we have not experienced since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 marked the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe. Here in Britain, we have reached our own impasse over Brexit. This is symptomatic of a wider malaise in the political discourse, and the ever widening gulf between the “establishment” – including both politicians and the media – and a large part of the population.
Too many citizens feel that they have no voice in the national conversation. More and more of them are severing the bonds between themselves and the political parties they have traditionally voted for. In the space of six weeks, the Brexit Party went from being a political start-up to winning the European elections with almost a third of the vote.
Political debate has descended into dysfunctional tribalism. There are two issues. First, the bounds of what is acceptable in public discourse has narrowed. If mainstream politics cannot provide a space for civilised discussion on the difficult challenges we face, people will migrate to those outside the mainstream, at either end of the spectrum, who recognise their concerns.
Second, we are hard-wired to be moralistic, judgemental and self-righteous. 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. Society is divided into 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.
However, there are a handful of independent-minded people who eschew group-think and speak out. Departing the tribe takes guts because of the vitriolic abuse and personal attacks that the leaver is subjected to. Reputations are tarnished and careers are jeopardised, or even lost.
The Contrarian Prize seeks to recognise the individuals in British public life who demonstrate independence, courage, sacrifice – and introduce new ideas into the public realm. This year’s shortlist highlights some of them:
- Katharine Birbalsingh, a teacher who spent her whole career working in inner city state comprehensive schools, dared to speak out at the Conservative Party conference in 2010 about how she felt that the education system kept “poor children poor”. She stated that a lack of discipline, insufficient emphasis on the teaching of knowledge and poor aspirations were the problem. The teaching establishment turned against her for speaking out, and she was forced out of her job. But, after battling for four years, she established her own free school which has now been rated outstanding by Ofsted.
- The lack of academic rigour in certain areas of “Grievance Studies”, where knowledge is formed on the basis of spurious evidence, was exposed by Helen Pluckrose. Working in conjunction with two colleagues, she wrote a series of bogus academic papers building on existing literature in the field, and managed to get a number published in leading peer-reviewed journals.
- In a period of normality, a cabinet minister who resigns on an issue of principle – like the late Labour cabinet minister Robin Cook – could be considered Contrarian. But where scores of ministers have abandoned the government, the one who stays put and tries to navigate the ship through choppy waters becomes a de facto contrarian. That is why Theresa May is the first the Prime Minister to have made it to the shortlist.
- Both David Goodhart and Douglas Murray have highlighted the challenges posed by immigration. For Goodhart, the rising level of net migration in the past two decades is one of a number of issues that highlights that those he defines as the “Anywheres” – liberal-minded, internationally mobile globalists who are as at home in New York and they are in London – have successfully advanced their worldview. However, the views of the “Somewheres”, who are rooted in their local communities and place greater value on tradition, have largely been ignored. The vote for Brexit and the rise of Trump is in part a response to this. Goodhart is now persona non grata in his erstwhile tribe.
- Douglas Murray places more emphasis on cultural challenges posed by rapid immigration into Europe, particularly from Muslim countries. He argues that the continent’s distinct culture and enlightenment values are challenged by people with a very different outlook and worldview, which is leading to “the strange death of Europe”. The rise of populist parties across Europe that promise to tackle immigration suggests that Murray is onto something big.
All of these Contrarians will not be cowed into keeping their heads down. They have spoken out for what they believe in against conventional wisdom, in some cases at great personal cost. Irrespective of whether you agree with them or not, for that they should be applauded.