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Where Are Our British Contrarians?

24/09/2014 11:46 BST | Updated 23/11/2014 10:59 GMT

The world is changing rapidly. Moisés Naím, in his book The End of Power, argues that power is shifting not only from West to East and from North to South, but from presidential palaces to public squares and from corporate behemoths to nimble start-ups. Those with power today are more constrained in what they can do and more at risk of losing it than ever before.

In a world where social media has allowed people to take control of the means of communication, traditional parties with their top-down hierarchies are suffering. and scrutiny of public figures has never been greater.

Only one percent of the British public belongs to a political party. In contrast the RSPB has one million members and the National trust has four million. The only party that is seeing its membership rise is UKIP. Part of its appeal is the plain speaking of its leader, Nigel Farage. Irrespective of whether you agree with him or not, one is in no doubt about his position on issues and that appeals to people.

38 Degrees, a not-for-profit organisation dedicated to organising people online and campaigning on specific issues, can assemble the masses overnight. It mobilised more than half a million people in 2011 to oppose the government's attempt to sell off part of the Forestry Commission estate. It won.

Public confidence in the great institutions of our country is at its lowest ebb in light of phone hacking, the parliamentary expenses scandal, malfeasance in the financial sector, and failings in parts of the NHS. People are crying out for leaders of conviction rather than lackeys to their political or corporate masters.

Too many people in British public life are "shackled by ambition". But there are the few who seek more than short-term career advancement. These are the people of ideas, that challenge, probe, and agitate for change. They are in the business of shaping the future, not of enjoying the comforts of a ministerial Jaguar.

Contrarians can be divided into two categories. First, there are those who rail against the system because they have an alternative vision to that accepted by the mainstream and wish to achieve change through the force of their argument.

The late Tony Benn was a towering example. A socialist of the old school, he was a man of conviction who had no truck with "Blairite managerialism". The Tory Press called him the most dangerous man in Britain. But arguing about whether you agreed with him or not is to miss the point. Here was a man who consistently stood up for what he believed in. He was fearless, tireless, relentless and unapologetic in making the case for change.

Second, are those who have contrarianism thrust upon them. They go about their business with no desire or intention to rock the boat. But there comes a defining moment when they come to a decision point. They can either "stay silent or speak out".

This is where we find our whistleblowers that wish to expose wrongdoing and individuals in public life who, having been loyal to their parties or institutions throughout their careers, find that they have to take a stand on a specific issue. Notable examples are Robin Cook who resigned from the Labour government over the Iraq war and Giles Fraser who stood down as Canon Chancellor of St Paul's over the forced removal of protestors from the steps of the Cathedral.

Both types of Contrarian have an important role to play in British public life. It is after all the Contrarians who change the world. They are the ones that challenge the accepted orthodoxy. But what makes them different from critics or pundits is not only that they take personal risk and make sacrifices for their beliefs, but that they unashamedly offer alternative solutions. They put their head above the parapet by advocating idiosyncratic positions which, in time, become mainstream.

Think of Emmeline Pankhurst a pioneer of the suffragette movement who campaigned for the right of women to vote, or Peter Tatchell who has spent his whole life fighting for human rights at times putting himself in physical danger. Contrarians are the yeast in the mix.

The Contrarian Prize seeks to recognise such figures. Members of the public nominate individuals in British public life via the website http://www.contrarianprize.com against four criteria: independence of thought, courage and conviction in their actions, the sacrifice they have made; and their introduction of new ideas into the public realm.

The prize, donated by the renowned pop artist Mauro Perucchetti http://www.mauroperucchetti.com, is entitled "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.

I invite you to consider who you believe is worthy of this accolade.

http://www.contrarianprize.com