Democracy under threat: a warning from history. By David Puttnam

David Puttnam at a lectern in front of a microphone delivering a speech
Lord Puttnam has repeatedly spoken out about the future of our democracy. Photo credit: David Puttnam website

David Puttnam’s departure from the House of Lords was every bit as dramatic as one of his Oscar-winning films, but his disillusion with British politics has been growing for a long time.

Lord Puttnam, 80, the producer of films such as The Killing Fields, Midnight Express and Bugsy Malone, spelt this out in a speech setting out his reasons for stepping down from the House of Lords.

Almost 49 years ago, Puttnam had travelled to Heidelberg to meet Albert Speer, Hitler’s former architect and armaments minister. He had recently been released from Spandau prison after 21 years. He was researching a less well-known, but important film, the 1973 film documentary Swastika, about the Nazification of Germany leading up to the Second World War.

Speer had written a best-selling memoir, Inside the Third Reich. During their conversations, Puttnam “came to understand what we now call ‘the fascist playbook’… the way democracy can be corrupted and overturned by a few malevolent but persuasive politicians, those who are prepared to exploit divisions in society with simple populist messages.”

He used this insight as the centre-piece of the speech, warning of the creeping threat to our system of democracy in the UK.

Key extracts from that speech follow:

Speer explained the extent to which we were all vulnerable, and the importance of developing the form of ‘moral vigilance’ required to recognise nascent evil for what it is. Driving to his office on November 10 1938 he passed the smouldering ruins of Berlin’s synagogues, the result of the orchestrated riots of the previous night – Kristallnacht. He (asked himself): “did I sense that this outbreak of hoodlumism was changing my own moral substance? I do not know.”

A more politically astute man would have realised that the Rubicon had been crossed five years earlier, in the aftermath of the Reichstag Fire and the subsequent Enabling Decree, which effectively disbanded Parliament and handed absolute power to Hitler.

The full title of the Act was The Decree for the Protection of the People and the State. It’s an interesting word ‘enabling’, it sounds fairly harmless – as in ‘enabling’ a child or an elderly person to safely cross a road. How often do powers accrue to Parliament through a piece of legislation whose intent is the precise opposite of its title?

Hitler henchman Albert Speer in full Nazi uniform greeting Adolf Hitler
Very much Hitler’s henchman: Albert Speer shaking no hands with the Führer in 1943. Photo: Wikipedia

It might be a good idea to take a long hard look at what else is coming down the track:

  • An Elections Bill that, contrary to the advice of the Committee for Standards in Public Life, is set on undermining our long established independent Electoral Commission;
  • A Bill to reform Judicial Review whose principal aim is to reduce the role of the Judiciary; 
  • A Police Bill that weakens the right to legal protest; 
  • Along with a plan to ‘widen the scope of the Official Secrets Act’ with no commitment to add a public interest defence for journalists;
  • Even an Education Bill that seeks to reduce traditional academic freedoms in the area of teacher training.

All of this accompanied by continued mutterings about ‘unelected judges’ in Strasbourg, and ‘reforming’ the UK’s implementation of the European Human Rights Act, potentially forcing us out of the Council of Europe.

The government is trampling on long held rights and conventions

And with every passing month there are more – each of them setting out to chip away at and undermine much of what defines an active liberal democracy: those institutions that might act as checks and balances on a populist government that’s trampling on long held rights and conventions, with the sole purpose of tightening its own grip on power.

Which is why a free and fearless media is essential to democracy.

So when the Prime Minister actively – and repeatedly – intervenes to manipulate an ideological ally into the chairmanship of Ofcom, every alarm bell should start to ring, signalling the absolute nonsense that’s being made of the regulator’s independence.

My decision to retire from the House of Lords later this month … was not a decision arrived at lightly and maybe it deserves a little explanation, possibly even some additional justification.

As I’ve mentioned, for a little over a year, from the spring of 2019 to the end of June 2020 I had the honour to chair a Lords Select Committee on the impact of digital technology on our political processes.

I was fortunate to have around me a cross-party group, along with an exceptional support team, all of whom took our brief incredibly seriously. Our final report, with its 45 evidence-based recommendations, was published in June of last year under the title Digital Technology and the Resurrection of Trust.

The capacity to trust each other… is fundamental to our survival as a coherent society

I believed and continue to believe that the ‘resurrection’ of our capacity to trust each other, and the systems through which we receive information – the same information on which we base many of the most important decisions of our lives – is fundamental to our survival as a coherent society.

I put it more simply in the foreword to the report – “without trust democracy as we know it will simply decline into irrelevance” – 15 months later I’d add, ‘or worse’!

The only accurate way to describe the Government’s response to our report is ‘lamentable’.

That was, to put it mildly, disheartening – made worse because throughout the deeply unpleasant Brexit debates when I’d been forced to watch ministers malevolently twist, turn and posture in parading their prejudices, along with their, at times, downright ignorance.

The lack of empathy and understanding in both Houses was truly shocking

Let me offer two examples: 

In discussions regarding the Republic of Ireland, and the complexity of finding sustainable post-Brexit solutions, I was staggered at the display of pig-ignorance towards the fundamentals of Irish history, let alone sensitivity towards the reality of cross-border relationships.

Had they really become so disconnected from the ghastly history of what we euphemistically call ‘the Troubles’? As someone who lives just across the Ilen River, in County Cork, from the site of what is probably the largest and most recent mass famine-grave on these islands, I may well be ultra-sensitive to these issues, but with a few notable exceptions, the level of empathy and understanding on display in both Houses was truly shocking.

To hear from government ministers, with a straight face, that it was going to be relatively simple to negotiate a significant trade deal with the United States – all the while remaining blithely ignorant of the immense political sensitivities across the island of Ireland – was either astonishingly stupid or a downright lie.

To both these issues I tried to inject some contemporary and historical realism; to find all rational discussion utterly ignored.

Lord Frost seems to exist in a world entirely of his own imagining

If anything, this situation has only deteriorated, made significantly worse by the unprincipled and destructive outbursts of the recently ennobled Lord Frost in Lisbon on Tuesday evening, who seems to exist in a world entirely of his own imagining.

Given all of this and more, at 80 I no longer find myself with sufficient patience to treat mendacious political inanity with the appearance of courtesy.

Albert Speer, all too late, came to understand that the most troubling faultline in human behaviour is the fatal link between ‘Power and Fear’, each feeding the other to create a toxic and combustible brew. One that perfectly serves the policies and purposes of corrupt autocracies, one that can only be faced down by a committed and unflinching adherence to plural democracy.

Mirroring the anxieties of many of those angry Brexiters in 2016, I feel I’ve had my country of birth, and the values I believed it to represent, stolen from me.

Throughout my career I’ve tried to perform the role of an active (sometimes cockeyed!) optimist. so let me end on an encouraging note.

I live a few hundred yards downstream from the Skibbereen rowing club. When we first arrived 30 years ago the club was beginning to grow a local reputation, and a young coach emerged from among its members named Dominic Casey.

Two rowers in their boat hold up their gold medals
The men from Skibbereen .. winning Gold at the Tokyo Olympics. Photo credit:

Under Dominic’s tutelage this tiny club grew a regional, national, and eventually European wide reputation. Five years ago it exploded onto international consciousness when two of its young members won a silver medal in the lightweight double sculls in Rio.

The post-race interview the two lads gave went ‘viral’ – a whole slew of local youngsters watched it and membership of the club soared. This year in Tokyo, young men from the club came home with gold medals and women with bronze.

This success has given an unimaginable boost to the morale of our community, a sense of pride and achievement that money can’t buy.

This autumn my wife and I have watched at least two dozen crews and single scullers, in all weathers, training for the next Olympics – fully in belief of what’s possible. It can happen, and thanks to people like my neighbour Dominic Casey I’m watching it happen – every day.

The above are extracts from his Shirley Williams Memorial Lecture on 15 October 2021.  You can read the full text of Lord Puttnams speech here.

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