Thank you very much for that kind introduction. It is a huge pleasure to be here today. I come as a representative of a very old Parliament. We would claim the oldest in the entire world but our friends in Iceland would probably dispute that, in order to learn lessons from a rather new one. Having a long history has many advantages but it can make an institution slow to adapt to change. Estonia as a Parliament, as a society and as a national culture has proven to be an early pioneer in the quest to enhance democratic institutions through technological innovation. This is an observation I first made in a speech in New Zealand last summer and which has become a considerable personal priority for me as Speaker of the House of Commons. There are many many reasons why a person might want to visit Estonia and I am sure that I will enjoy every aspect of this trip but the desire to understand more about your emerging e-democracy ranks as my principal objective.
Before I say a little more about that, however, I must address the broader security situation and the political crisis that has been triggered in and around Ukraine. I appreciate that this has been a matter of enormous concern for parliamentarians here as it is for us in the United Kingdom. Much time has been spent on this in the House of Commons. Many senior ministers, including the Prime Minister, have addressed the matter. Parliament recently heard and welcomed an announcement from Philip Hammond, our Defence Secretary, on the deployment of Royal Air Force Typhoon aircraft to reinforce Baltic Air Policing and I am pleased that preparations are now being made for their arrival in Lithuania by the end of the month. It is also very good to note that a large number of British soldiers will be here again in May for Estonia’s main military exercise of the year, Spring Storm. Both of these actions underline our strong commitment to Estonia’s security.
More broadly on defence policy, it is extremely encouraging that our already close bilateral partnership is continuing to deepen. I know that British military commanders have been immensely impressed by the professionalism and capability of the Estonian soldiers with whom they have served together in Helmand in Afghanistan. The Defence Agreement which our two countries signed in December commits us to an even closer relationship in the future, including the work which we are doing together on the development of the Joint Expeditionary Force. Furthermore, the visit to Estonia in May by his Royal Highness Prince Harry will be perhaps the most strikingly visible way in which Britain can thank Estonia for what we have done together to date, and look forward with confidence to the future.
The future for democracies such as our own has to including finding new ways to bond elected representatives more closely to the represented voter. This is a common challenge for legislatures throughout the world. We live in an age of intense media activity but with a media that is restless and demands instant answers to questions which are often too complicated and challenging for an immediate reply. Legislatures are deliberative bodies. Deliberation is not easily reconciled with a 24/7 media schedule. We have to assert the right to think through important issues in the best possible manner while reassuring our electorates that we are truly focused on the subjects that concern them the most. If we do not, then we risk becoming increasingly irrelevant, mutating into symbolic political institutions, rather than institutions of serious substance. This is an outcome which we must strive to avoid. I believe strong democracies require strong parliaments and strong parliaments require strong links to citizens.
I am an optimist in this regard. I believe that new technology can assist us in our ambition to become ever closer to those whom we serve. I think that the internet in all its manifestations can be the means by which we boost electoral participation and then increase personal participation in the vital work which each of our parliaments undertakes. The British Parliament, for example, has an extensive website and deploys an array of social media to spread the message about the activities with which we are engaged. Yet we must use new technology to receive messages as well as broadcast them. We need to listen and not appear to lecture. Young voters, in particular, will not be interested in us if we do not communicate to them by the means with which they communicate with each other. We have to be part of the smartphone age and not seemingly stuck in the stone-age.
For that reason, I have established a Digital Democracy Commission for the United Kingdom. The objective is to consider how our parliamentary democracy can embrace the opportunities afforded by the digital world to become more effective in representing people, scrutinising the Government of the day, formulating law, encouraging citizens to engage with democracy and facilitating dialogue amongst citizens. This Commission is listening and talking to people, gathering evidence, from within the UK and across the globe. It will publish its recommendations in January 2015 – the 750th anniversary of our Parliament.
It is as part of that enterprise that I so wanted the opportunity to come to Estonia and see for myself what is happening here. I am intrigued by the widespread use of the Internet in voting at your elections. I am fascinated by the way that you use the internet to link people with problems or issues to this parliament and government departments alike, providing a better and more intimate service, frequently at a cost saving. I note the innovative means by which you are integrating crowd sourcing techniques into your civil society. I am also struck by the sheer speed at which all this is happening.
Your country should be proud of the reputation it has achieved for technological leadership in this regard. Estonia is rapidly being seen as E-stonia by all those looking for new ideas in this territory. It also demonstrates your wider, astonishing success, as a people over the past 25 years, in not just re-establishing your sovereignty but asserting your identity. This is a place where people, including myself today, go to look for the future. I am so pleased that you have offered me this opportunity to conduct that search on behalf of the House of Commons.
In thank you for the warmth of your welcome, and the chance to learn from your best practice, I wish you and your fellow citizens peace, prosperity and successful partnership with friends and neighbours in Europe and throughout the world.