Going against the grain is back in vogue, with individuals who have argued against conventional orthodoxy truly changing the world over the past few years.
They have championed ideas that they feel are too important to keep shtum about, and have achieved enormous success by sticking to their guns and refusing to give in to the crushing consensus of established opinion.
Coming at some personal cost, however, this success has not been easily won, and with the rise of “trigger warnings”, “no platforming”, and “safe spaces”, the threat to freedom of thought and speech is growing stronger, not weaker.
That is why, five years ago, I founded The Contrarian Prize, to recognise individuals in British public life who demonstrate independence, courage, sacrifice and introduce new ideas into the public realm, to give these free-thinkers the kudos they deserve.
That Brexit dominates this year’s shortlist is understandable. All the major parties, as well as large sections of the media and business community, agreed that it was in Britain’s interests to remain in the EU. But those who advanced the opposing view won the argument. Three leading figures among them are in contention for the prize.
Gisela Stuart, a German-born Labour MP, went against the official line of her party to spearhead the Vote Leave campaign. It was in her role as UK representative to the body tasked with drawing up a new EU constitution that she concluded that, given the trend towards deeper political integration, the UK would be better off out. She has been ostracised by colleagues on the left, endured personal abuse and been spurned by friends.
But the life of the contrarian is not meant to be easy, as Nigel Farage, the former leader of Ukip, knows. Having left the Conservative Party in 1992 in protest at the signing of the Maastricht treaty, he took Ukip from being a fringe outfit to topping the poll in the 2014 European elections. He played a pivotal role, first, in forcing David Cameron to concede to a referendum and subsequently winning it in the face of unrelenting opprobrium. Few politicians can claim to have changed the terms of the debate – Farage is one them.
Leading economist Patrick Minford’s penchant for breaking ranks with his academic contemporaries dates back to his support for the monetarist policies espoused by Margaret Thatcher in 1983. More recently, he founded Economists for Brexit, arguing that many of his peers had “deliberately rigged” their assumptions to generate apocalyptic predictions of economic collapse. He contended that Brexit would expand trade and that Britain could interact with the EU under WTO rules, while benefiting from lower consumer prices and less regulation. Many of his arguments have already been vindicated.
It is not only within the political sphere that people have stood up for their beliefs. Faith Spear was the chairman of an independent monitoring board of a local prison. She gave a prescient warning about the failings within the prison service, highlighting the cosy relationship between staff, the prison governor and members of monitoring boards who were, in her view, “gagged”, preventing them from asking legitimate questions. She was sacked for speaking out.
Narindar Saroop, a retired army major, was proud to have been awarded his CBE in 1982. However, he was so disgusted by Cameron’s resignation honours list, which he felt surpassed the excesses of earlier Prime Ministers including Tony Blair, that he decided to return his award to the Queen to make a point.
Patrik Schumacher, a renowned architect, has broken with orthodoxy by suggesting market-based solutions to tackle the housing crisis, including development on Hyde Park and, controversially, the replacement of social housing stock in prime London locations with private housing. These views have provoked the hostility of his peers in the profession, as well as politicians and the press. The fact that he has had the courage to articulate a contrarian perspective in an era where discussion of certain ideas is deemed to be off-limits is laudable.
Whatever you might think of their views, all those shortlisted have put their head above the parapet to stand up for their principles, and British public life is the richer for it.
The winner will be announced by Sir Simon Jenkins at a ceremony on 16 May at the Bernard Jacobson Gallery.