A speech by Chris Mullin MP at Harrow School on 18th January, 2001.
At the outset, let me say I am not going to try to persuade you to vote for my party. My only wish is that you enter the world in an inquiring frame of mind. That you bear in mind that the official version of events is frequently - but not always - wrong. That you are aware of our enormous good fortune.
And a word of warning. Beware of anyone who tries to sell you a perfect formula for all the world's ills. There isn't one. No religion, no political party, not ideology has a monopoly of wisdom. There are no magic, vernight solutions to the problems that we have to confront. We can only talk about the reversal of certain ominous trends.
Politicians, as you may have noticed, don't enjoy a good press. There are a number of reasons.
First, it has to be admitted that much of the damage is self-inflicted. If politicians misbehave or slag each other off in public, it is not entirely surprising that the public say, 'aplague on both your houses'. I would only ask you to note that - fallible, imperfect, inadequate creatures though we are - most politicians of my acquaintance, of whichever party, are people of integrity.
Second, we live in an age where it is fashionable to demand instant results and where increasingly instant results are not available. Politicians are not as powerful as they once were. The levers we used to pull no longer produce results. In the old days owners of the mines and the shipyards lived close to the source of their wealth and to the people who worked for them. There was a chance that they could be influenced. That is less likely to be the case today when a factory closure on Tyneside or at Dagenham, is likely to be the result of a decision taken in a boardroom on the other side of the world, far beyond our sphere of influence.
Also, politics, like business, has gone multinational. If, for example, you wish to impose a ban on the live export of animals, it is no longer enough to persuade our ownGovernment. For such a ban to be effective, we have to carry with us the political leaders of a dozen other countries in the European Community. Understandably this erosion of domestic political power has led to a certain erosion in the esteem in which we hold our political leaders. In a park in the centre of my constituency there is a statue of one of my Victorian predecessors, built by his grateful constituents. I entertain no such expectations. The days when people built statues of the MPs are long gone.
Third, we live in a time of deep cynicism about all public figures and institutions. Loath though I am to seek scapegoats, I would suggest that this is to a large extent due to the growth of a media hungry for sensation. The author, Robert Harris, put it well the other day. He wrote, "An explosion in the number of television channels and newspaper sections has coincided, paradoxically with a period in which nothing much seems to be happening in the Western world at least in terms of politics and culture: no cold war, no grand ideological conflict, no great artists. But" he went on"business is business. The acres of newsprint and the thousands of news bulletins must all be filled with something. Celebrities must somehow be created to be fed into this ravening maw if only to be spat out in disgust a few months later".
Don't get me wrong. Scepticism of the official version of events is an important feature of a healthy democracy and should be encouraged. However, I do sometimes wonder if it hasn't gone too far. Political reporting today consists almost entirely of splits, leaks and personal trivia. Even in the best newspapers and television news bulletins straight reporting is relatively rare. A Channel Four reporter of my acquaintance complained to me the other day that she was expected to deliver "News with Attitude". Nowadays, it seems, news by itself is insufficient.
The fourth and final reason why politics and politicians enjoy a bad press is that we live in an age of apathy. By and large people are better off than they have ever been (thoughnot necessarily happier). We are daily assailed by an endless diet of trivia which has deprived many otherwise sensible people of the capacity to think for themselves and the energy to act collectively. We live in a society with a highly developed sense of rights, but an underdeveloped sense of responsibilities - and it is always easier to heap upon someone else the blame for the wrongs of the world than to acknowledge our own share of responsibility and act accordingly.
Enough of pessimism. I shall be positive from now on. Perhaps it would be helpful if we put to one side the word 'politics' and substituted, 'democracy'. We tend to take for granted the fact that we live in a democracy where it is possible to elect our rulers, to hold them to account (albeit imperfectly) and ultimately (should we choose) to remove them. It was not always so. Democracy was not a gift from God. Still less was it a gift from the Conservative Party a part of which (as you will know from your history) fought tooth and nail to prevent the extension of the franchise to the lower orders.
The achievements of democracy are considerable. In our country - and in most other parts of the developed world - democracy has delivered universal education and health care, old age pensions and, in the workplace, a revolution - paid holidays, sickness pay, redundancy pay, a minimum wage. Above all, democracy has given us freedom from hunger and fear - we can speak our minds without the fear of a visit from the Thought Police. In short, democracy (and, yes, politics) has brought us most of the things that we take for granted as essential ingredients of a civilised life. And to those who say that these things would have been conceded anyway I say, "Look around you". There are plenty of countries in the world today where, as it was in Britain a hundred years ago, most power and wealth was in the hands of a small elite. They do not have to share their good fortune with their people and, by and large, they don't. We can all point to countries where the elite retain power by force and, as a result, live in fortified condominiums, enjoying lives of unimaginable luxury while most of their people dwell in squalor and misery.
And of course democracy has one big downside. It does not come cheap. Health, education and all the good things I listed above have to be paid for - and they are paid for out of tax. One of the functions of politicians in a democracy is to decide how much tax to raise and what to spend it on. Sometimes the choices are difficult. There is always a balance to be struck. There are always interests that are bound to be offended by whatever choices are made. Sometimes the politicians will get the balance wrong, in which case the electorate will draw this to their attention at the appropriate time - a general election, for example. Nothing so concentrates the mind as the knowledge that at the end of the day a politician who misuses or abuses the trust of the people can be dismissed.
You may sometimes hear it alleged that tax in Britain is too high. Indeed, it may well be that some taxes are too high. Equally it may well be that others are too low. There are three points I wish to make about tax. First, the overall level of taxation in this country is among the lowest in the developed world. Second, that if you look around, you may notice that the more successful democracies - Scandinavia, Holland, Germany - also tend to have relatively high levels of tax. Third, and this is the fundamental point, taxation - fairly raised and fairly distributed - is the subscription we pay for living in civilisation.
In Britain we have come to take democracy for granted. The extent of our complacency may be measured by the falling turn-outs at elections - in some parts of the country less than ten percent of the population take part in local elections and little more than half at general elections. A deep cynicism is the prevailing sentiment. Cynicism is a corrosive disease. I urge you to resist it. And the best way to resist cynicism is to recognise our good fortune.
We have been born into the most prosperous part of one of the most prosperous countries on earth. We live in a country that has not known war for more than fifty years and which has not been successfully invaded for a thousand. We have a stable political system which can be changed by peaceful means. Yes, we have our problems but, my goodness, what would someone of your age or mine born in Iraq, Afghanistan, Kosovo, or any one of a hundred countries give to change places with us? I remember a young man in Iraq once said to a journalist, "Some people are born in the light and some are born in the darkness. I would like to spend a few days in the light to see what it is like".
My main message to you is this: those of us who have been born in the light owe it to ourselves, as well as to our fellow human beings, not to squander our good fortune. Not just to take, take, take, but to put something back into the world so that we end our lives with our self-respect intact.
I didn't go into politics to become rich, to defend vested interests or because I had a perfect formula for human happiness which I wished to impose upon my fellow citizens, regardless of whether or not they wanted it. I went into politics in the hope of making the world a better place and I was optimistic enough - some might say foolish enough - to believe I had a contribution to make.
Whether I was right or not remains to be seen. The jury, as they say, is still out. Hardly a day passes when I do not wonder whether I might have been or more use to the human race had I worked for an aid agency or an environmental organisation. But what I do not regret is that I went into a profession which, for all its imperfections, is by and large concerned with improving the human condition.
Most people, when they look back at their lives, can point to some event early on that determined the direction their lives would take. The event that politicised a good many peopleof your grandfather's generation was the rise of fascism in Europe. The event that galvanised me, and many of mygeneration, was the Vietnam war.
Even in the isolation of my Catholic boarding school at Ipswich, with only the 'Daily Telegraph' and 'The Times' upon which to rely for information about the world outside, I managed to work out that something was seriously wrong with the official version of events.
You, I respectfully suggest, have an even bigger issue to exercise your minds - the survival of the planet. An awful truth is beginning to dawn upon sensible people of all political persuasions. Namely that if human beings go on consuming the resources of the earth at the present rate, catastrophe beckons. Indeed, there are tentative signs that the catastrophe has already begun. Already a huge hole has appeared in the ozone layer over North America, home of the world's most voracious consumers. Already, a large chunk of the Antarctic ice cap has sheared off. Already vastareas of the earth's forests have been stripped, creating deserts in their wake. Animal species that have dwelt upon this earth for millions of years are disappearing faster thanever. Some human species are disappearing too. The indians of the Amazon and North America; the aborigines of Australia and New Zealand. Africa, burdened by debt and flooded by weapons made in the industrial world, is in chaos from top to bottom.
Gradually the world is being taken over by corporations. Governments are becoming powerless to intervene as the market sweeps all before it. Our planet is being polluted and looted. Our oceans are being vacuumed of all living creatures. Ownership of the means of production is becoming concentrated into fewer and fewer hands. Those who own the means of production, thanks to wondrous new technology, require less and less human beings to service their empires and they are becoming increasingly ruthless in disposing of those who are surplus to requirements.
Beyond all this lies the stark reality that, if we continue to consume the resources of the planet for the next hundredyears as wantonly as we have done for the last hundred, then we are among the last generations of human beings.
If the human race is to survive, then we have to devise mechanisms for living in harmony with each other and with the planet. We have to develop a sustainable lifestyle. That involved some painful choices. It may require a reduction - yes, a reduction - in our standard of living. It will require a great reduction in the use of the private motor car. It will require the development of renewable sources of energy - from wind, waves or sun - to replace oil and gas, supplies of which will probably dry up within your life time. It will require us drastically to reduce the amount of waste we produce and to devise ways of re-using and recycling that which we do produce. That is the challenge for your generation and for your children.
It is, of course, a challenge that involves people from all walks of life - scientists, businessmen, civil servants. But at the end of the day, those called upon to take the decisions arethose inadequate, ridiculed, boring, despised people call politicians. It's not such a bad job after all.