Speech: Parliament and Young People – bringing the two together in a digital world

The Lord Speaker's Lecture Series
The Queen’s Robing Room, House of Lords
Tuesday 29 June 2010
The Lord Puttnam CBE

Good afternoon; it's a genuine privilege to have been asked to deliver this Lecture in what I hope you'll agree is an absolutely unique setting.

I’d like to start, if I may, with a fascinating exchange between a father and his son that I came across in the New York Times on 'Fathers Day', a week ago last Sunday; and which captures the essence of just about everything I want to address during the next half hour.

Forgive me if I quote it at some length, but I'm confident that by end of today’s Lecture you’ll be very clear as to why I've started with this passage.

The exchange is between a British born historian and professor named Tony Judt who, I think it is fair to say, comes from the broad left of politics; and Daniel, his sixteen year old son. Here’s how the exchange began.

Daniel Judt, the son says,

"Had I been 18 in November 2008, I would have voted for Barack Obama. I believed, innocently, that his administration would put its foot down, stamping out the environmental crisis that his predecessors had allowed to fester. I felt Mr. Obama knew how to do the right thing morally, even if it meant going against the 'right thing' politically.

"Less than two years later, I've become hugely pessimistic about the moral resolve of our government and corporate world. Deepwater Horizon has been the tipping point. It's made me realise that the generation in office just doesn’t ‘get it’. They appear to see the environmental crisis in the same light as they see political debacles and economic woes.

"Politics pass, and economies rebound, but the environment doesn’t. It’s that sense of 'We’ll get that done right after we've dealt with everything else' that makes me so angry. The world is not an expendable resource; simply fixing the damage you have inflicted will be the big issue for my generation. It is that simple!"

His father replies,

"Well I'm 62, and I did vote for Barack Obama. I held out no great hopes. It was clear from the outset that this was someone who would concede rather than confront — and that’s certainly a shortcoming in a politician, if not in a man.

"As for the corporations, we baby boomers were right to be cynical. Oil companies are not benign economic agents, serving a need and taking a cut. They are, in Theodore Roosevelt’s words, 'malefactors of great wealth.' But our cynicism dulled our response to truly criminal behaviour. It's one thing to watch while Goldman Sachs pillages the economy, quite another to be invited to stand aside while BP violates the Gulf Coast.

"Yes, we should be a lot angrier than we are. We are staring into our future and it simply does not work. This latest gush of filth is a reminder that we have surrendered our independence to a technology we cannot master. Our energies are misdirected to expensive foreign wars whose purposes grow ever more obscure. We rail at one another in 'cultural' clashes that are irrelevant to our real problems. Meanwhile, the clockwork precision of our classical constitution has ground to a halt — depending as it does on a consensus that no longer exists. Taking the long view - this is how democracies die.'Someone' clearly has to do 'something'. What do your generation propose?"

Here you have a father and son expressing their anger, their disappointment and their sense of lost opportunities about some of the really big political issues of our age – climate change, the financial crisis, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But what particularly fascinated me about this part of the exchange – and I would urge you all to read it simply by Googling up Tony and Daniel Judt – that's J-U-D-T – is Daniel’s sense that an entire generation of politicians simply “don’t get it” when it comes to the major political challenge of our age. As he says “Politics pass, and economies rebound, but the environment doesn’t.” And I'm also at one with his Father when he says, "We are staring into our future and it simply doesn't work"! What's certain is that the solution lies in our own hands, for as another writer recently put it in The New York Times, “Great Recessions don’t last. Great Ideas do.”

But actually I’d go further, because many of the young people I come across, and I suspect many of you here this afternoon, have come to believe that politicians also 'don’t get it' in a much broader sense. And this is about far more than any individual politician, or even any individual political party; it's about the whole way our political and parliamentary system operates and interacts with the public – certainly here in the UK, but more generally in all of the Western Democracies. Unless we find a way of fixing it, then Tony Judt will be right - "it is how democracies die"!

At the heart of this impending tragedy is the hopelessly damaging relationship between the media, and those called upon to conceive and deliver public policy. And the fault lies very firmly on both sides. What we are dealing with here are parallel inadequacies, those of what, for convenience, I'll call 'Parliament', and those of an ever more competitive communications industry. Between them they have managed to construct a battlefield upon which the big losers are Truth, Illumination and Common Sense; the very things we most need if we are to understand and make sense of this increasingly dangerous and complex world of ours.

For their part politicians and the Civil Servants who support them feel ‘trapped’ in the malevolent glare of a media culture whose primary purpose is to undermine rather than underpin public confidence. The national (or is it international) obsession with the 'trivial' is increasingly making the intelligent exercise of public life all but impossible.

As you walked across Parliament Square this evening you might have glanced up at the statues of two Prime Ministers, Winston Churchill and David Lloyd George; both men who steered this country through the most difficult and dangerous years of the last century, both men who today's 'media climate' would have been hounded out of office long before either of them had the chance of saving our skins. One was an impulsive drunk, and the other a compulsive womaniser - what chance would you have given them against a predatory assault by today's Telegraph, Mail and Sun - with the BBC and Sky News only too eager to jump on the bandwagon of - 'a story simply too good to ignore'. Instead of Lloyd George you'd have had Asquith or Bonar Law, and instead of Churchill; Lord Halifax - and a very good chance that we'd all be speaking German!! Am I possibly overstating my case?

Well here are a few of the things I hear young people claim we in Parliament 'simply don’t get’. We seem not to have got our heads around the way in which digital technologies are fundamentally changing every single aspect of our lives – the way we receive information; the way we create and share ideas - and the manner in which we communicate them.The way in which politicians and Parliament often seem completely divorced from the everyday realities of your lives – people hurling insults at one another across the debating chamber; the strange procedures and even stranger language in which we conduct politics, much of which is simply alienating to those who want to understand and hopefully participate in the decision making processes that affect their everyday lives.Then there is the bizarre collusion that seems to exist between politicians and those who report on their activities; a collusion that, far from raising the game of either party, allows the relationship to stew at its lowest common denominator.

This growing gulf, between the way in which young people like yourselves see the world, and the way in which politics is conducted in this country, is one of the core themes I want to hang a lantern on this afternoon. And this is important, because, as young Daniel Judt puts it, "If we don’t change, we will gradually become irrelevant".

Interestingly, Lord Macaulay, speaking in the Debate on the Reform Act on March 1st 1831, said much the same thing,

“The aim of Government is the happiness of the people; and this cannot be granted by an institution in which the electorate place no confidence. Institutions, as valuable and useful as they may be, are useful as a means, not as ends. The voice of greater events is proclaiming to us, ‘reform that you may preserve’!”

Personally, I'd like to see that quote emblazoned over the door of both Parliamentary Chambers, so that every MP and Peer had to walk past and consider its implications - every day of their working lives!

I should point out that not everything I have to say today will be critical; there are a great number of people in this building who are making heroic progress in helping connect Parliament with engaged citizens such as yourselves. My own contribution this afternoon is essentially to offer a few pointers as to how we might build on those efforts, and start to transform our political system so that it really does begin to feel as though it belongs to every citizen in this country and, as a result, becomes increasingly valued by them.

What’s certain is that since entering the House of Lords in 1997 I've had the opportunity to engage with people who, every day of their working lives, are attempting to mould the ‘building blocks’, the quality of which will, in just about every respect, determine the future of our planet. Those ‘building blocks’ are, for the most part, people like yourselves, and those who teach you – be they school teachers or college professors. And if, as I see it, the future looks increasingly like a ‘war’; then this most recent generation of teachers, and the resources we make available to them, are the closest thing to an ‘infantry’ that’s available to us! It is this current generation of young people, along with those teachers I just referred to who, to my way of thinking, represent the most promising foundation upon which can be built a sustainable society - here or anywhere else in the world.

This ‘war’ I’m referring to is a war between what I feel to be our increasingly failed present, and the possibility of an altogether more imaginative future.
And it’s not simply that I want us to enjoy a more imaginative future – it’s more the case that I can't see much of a future of any kind unless we’re prepared to be a great deal more imaginative! As ever, it's all likely to come down to a battle between our worst and our better selves, and finding the prospect of playing to my own worst instincts pretty unattractive, I’ve been only too happy to throw my energy into improving the quality, the reputation and the relevance of education.

(Talk about 'An Inconvenient Truth' and then introduce a clip from the film 'We Are the People We’ve Been Waiting For.')

If today's politicians truly are prepared to take on the immense challenges of the 21st century, then as I see it we’ve no choice but to embrace the equally immense reach and power of the most recent digital technologies. And do so in a way that makes our present rate of adoption look exactly what it is – half-hearted - if not pitifully inadequate!

Let’s face it; in many respects life beyond the walls of Westminster and those of your own school or college has been quite literally 'transformed' in the past thirty years or so. In particular, technology – whether in the form of mobiles, the internet or video games – has fundamentally reshaped the way in which we can connect with, make sense of, and engage with society. Believe it or not, until a very few years ago, simply using a mobile phone in this building to send a text message, let alone an email, was treated as an offence for which you were likely to be carted off to the Tower! And heaven forbid that clips from our debates – whether in the Commons or the Lords – should find their way onto YouTube, for fear that someone might find some means of parodying us. Although how you can possibly parody and offend a group of people who find it possible to dress up in twelfth century robes and funny hats remains a total mystery to me! Thankfully that the ban on showing clips on YouTube looks as though it is about to be lifted, as we slowly catch up with the rest of the world although - it's possibly worth mentioning - not half as slowly as the House of Commons!

I use this relatively trivial but telling example because to me it demonstrates how Parliament instinctively tries to obstruct digital technology (in fact any technology) from disrupting the “way we’ve always done things.” Please believe me, I have a great respect for tradition – but if traditions are to survive, respect for them has to be earned as a justifiable contribution to 'civility'; not simply imposed as an additional burden on an already confused society. And this reluctance to engage with, and seek out the opportunities offered by 'new' technologies extends to the broader way in which Parliament has traditionally communicated with the world.

By contrast, many of you have come to legitimately expect an entirely new form of relationship with the world; one that doesn’t simply rely on accessing information, but on turning that information into new knowledge, new products and even new resources. In a well run world, you would surely expect politicians and Parliament to be helping nurture and shape this relationship - rather than seeking to frustrate and hinder it? Yet, with a few notable exceptions, most of the innovations which use the web to help explain, communicate and share the work that politicians do, have come about despite rather than because of Parliamentary support. 'Democracy Live' is a brilliant new BBC initiative - the stuff of which any politician, wishing to seriously engage with their electorate, would have avidly embraced at just about any point in history. TheyWorkforYou.com is a fantastic resource for finding out what politicians have been saying on this or that issue; how they've voted, and where their expertise and interests seem to lie. It also encourages its users to add content of their own. This resource was created by the MySociety initiative, which is entirely independent of Parliament.

Of course, in times like these, when public finances are under severe strain, we're likely to need all the help we can get from the private sector. That being the case I really hope developers making 'apps' for devices such as the iPhone, the iPad and the new generation of Android phones will help by coming up with really innovative applications which help add yet another layer of day-to-day engagement with politics.

The work that the Education Service here in Parliament is currently doing in creating interactive resources to help you understand the way in which this place works is nothing short of brilliant. If you Google 'Parliament' and 'education' it will take you straight to the site. There you’ll find a very rich mix of resources which enable you to travel through the history of Parliament; to explore what we do here and, best of all, encourages you to become a virtual MP for a week – trying to balance the competing demands on your time, just as MPs do, from meetings with constituents about litter and burnt-out cars, to summits with the Prime Minister. There’s a real depth and breadth to these resources and I urge anyone who hasn’t already looked at them to become far more deeply involved – and of course to make suggestions about how it can be made even more relevant to your needs. Yes, your needs, not ours!

But I’d like to see things go further, much further. Let me use an example which I’ve been drawing on for a number of years now. All of us in this room are by now aware of the sheer scale and sophistication of web-based companies such as Amazon.com. Amazon fulfils the orders of more than [x] million regular customers. A regular customer is judged to be anyone dealing with Amazon more than once a month. As those of you – that’s to say most of you - who have at some point purchased products online will know, you enter the 'home page' to be greeted with something like,

"Hello David Puttnam, (the ‘web’ is no great respecter of titles!) you recently purchased ‘so and so’. Did you know that the same author has a new book out?"

or,

"We noticed that you're developing a growing interest in contemporary jazz.Are you aware of the following CDs that have been released in the past couple of weeks?"

The point is this; my interests have been accurately captured so that I can be constantly updated about what has recently become available - within my predetermined areas of interest. What we have here is nothing more than an ‘enabling mechanism’ that could, if used intelligently, significantly increase interest, and at the same time a far better understanding of the work of Parliament.

I’m keenly aware that people such as yourselves will connect with Parliament only through issues which are of genuine concern to them. You also need to be encouraged to believe that this newly informed concern can, over time, translate into influence.

So, for jazz from Amazon.com - read ‘climate change’ from Parliament.com. Why shouldn’t every citizen of this country directly connect and learn about the issues that most affect their lives through simple and immediate access to whatever parallel activity is taking place in Parliament? None of this stuff is science fiction. All of it can be achieved here and now. Most importantly, this represents an opportunity for Parliament to prove that it can escape from the accusation that it only deals in reluctant incremental change. But, as they used to say when I was young, 'it takes two to tango'.

I mentioned at the outset the desperately unhealthy situation that has come to exist between the governance of this country and the media who, as they might put it, 'hold it to account'. I refuse to believe that this relationship was ever intended to be reduced to an unhealthy form of 'contact sport'. And in case you should think that you’re about to have to listen to another beleaguered Parliamentarian complaining of 'unfair' treatment, pay heed I beg you to the words of two people who similarly feel that our present situation is a ‘road to nowhere’. Both happen to be very well-respected journalists.

In the Guardian earlier this month, under the title, 'The New Politics Deserves Better than the Old Media's Infantilising Cynicism', Jenni Russell had this to say regarding the early departure from the Government of the Cabinet Minister, David Laws,

"Britain has developed a media and public culture in which suspicion and criticism are now regarded as the appropriate lens through which to view every political event. In print and online, a tone of cynicism dominates any political discussion.... Interviewers are hunting for weakness, or contradictions, rather than illumination... It's wholesale application has become an utterly destructive part of our collective life. This grudging, myopic approach is bad for all of us. It infantilises and depresses us."

She finished her article by saying,

"The media are constantly demanding that decision makers should take responsibility for their actions. We (as journalists) ought to feel the obligation to do the same."

And from across the Atlantic, here is David Brooks in last Thursday's New York Times, talking about the media's unhealthy obsession with the personal lives of politicians,

"Over the course of fifty years, what had once been considered the least important part of government became the most important. These days, the inner soap opera is the most discussed and the most fraught arena of political life....The (old) 'reticent' ethos had its flaws. But the 'exposure' ethos, with its relentless emphasis on destroying privacy and exposing impurities, has chased good people from public life, undermined public faith in institutions, and elevated the trivial over the important. Another scalp is on the wall....
The honest and freewheeling - (remember my reference to Churchill, to Lloyd George - or for that matter - to Franklin D Roosevelt) - the honest and freewheeling will continue to flee public life, and only the cautious and calculating remain. The culture of exposure will have triumphed, with results for all to see."

And I'd add; results that the rest of us will have to live with!

In this context I'd make one extra point. If David Cameron is remotely serious about wanting to herald in a new type of politics, he will have to do a lot better than inviting Rupert Murdoch to see him as one of the first acts of his Premiership, and allowing him to enter No 10 by the back stairs! As the former Cabinet Minister, John Biffen once memorably said, "whenever the Prime Minister of the day gets together in secret conclave with a powerful media owner, you can be very sure that Democracy is not being well served".

As I draw to a close, I can do no better than return to the closing words used by young Daniel Judt to his father in the New York Times last week,

"To have so many young people help elect a government after years of scepticism is no small feat. President Obama almost single-handedly instilled political vigour in those of us who knew only shame over the previous administration. Without that surge of hope and thirst for action it is very possible that most members of my generation would have abandoned politics in disgust before they even began. For that mobilization alone we have Mr. Obama to thank.

"Of course he deserves criticism. But what we must not do - as a generation and as a nation - is to let our disillusion devolve into pessimism and laziness. What we now face is a 'moral' challenge from which we cannot back down".


Daniel concludes by saying to his Dad,

"I was afraid that in your scepticism you had lost faith and given up - you have to admit that the radicalism of your generation never quite lived up to its potential. You always say that politics is about ‘the art of the possible’: but if we could turn our anger into positive action, then surely the possible becomes a whole lot more probable".

In just about every respect I agree with him. I too desperately want the global economy to emerge from this present 'man-made' crisis to become the bedrock upon which can be built a more successful and sustainable society; but we find ourselves living in a world of cascading and intertwined threats; threats that have the potential, at any given moment, to turn our lives upside down. Daniel is right - my own post WW 2 generation has a great deal to answer for. Through their efforts our fathers (my father) left us a wonderful legacy upon which to begin to build a fairer society, and a better future. Sadly, we have squandered many of the opportunities their sacrifice made possible; so much so that we’re in danger of leaving behind, not just massive levels of global indebtedness, but a seriously degraded environment along with significantly depleted natural resources of just about every type - including water!

As I’ve argued, the only possible means by which we can reverse this situation is to be found in our nation’s classrooms and colleges; are we going to develop a generation of political leaders who have the courage and the imagination to seriously invest in the future; are we able to draw upon our unquestioned human potential for creativity and ingenuity in such a way as to offer you, the young people of this and every other country, a far better start to their lives than any generation before them? By that I mean, better informed, better equipped and better motivated. Should we fail to supply you with the tools you need, then it seems to me there’s very little possibility of your being able to do the job – fortunately the best thing my generation can leave behind doesn’t have to cost a great deal of money – far and away the most valuable thing we can pass on is an effective, transparent and hopefully, vibrant democracy.

And that’s incredibly important, because the challenges your generation will face are colossal, and on the outcome of your efforts depends nothing less than the future of this, once very beautiful, planet.

To paraphrase the title of that film I showed you earlier - You Really Are the People We've Been Waiting For!

Thank you very much for listening to me.