Here is Nader Fekri's speech he had intended to give to WP300 had not a positive covid test stopped him flying from Argentina.


Looking back is good, but looking forward is even better

Good afternoon Everyone, Friends, Romans, Old Priceans, I'd like to start off by thanking the Organising Committee and especially Pip Reynolds for inviting me to address this glorious gathering this afternoon.

When Pip invited me to talk to you today, he mentioned that my biggest challenge would be to keep my blathering down to 10 minutes. I shall do my best to prove him wrong.

It was while at Price's that my passion for politics was primed: having had to write a detention essay as to why our then Tory MP was a "pranny", the double elections of 1974, contributing to the school newsletter, and later the debate club. This translated into a period as a local councillor and today is exactly 10 years since I stood down as Mayor of Calderdale, so exchanging one distinguished audience for another is a huge privilege and honour for me.

Following on from Alan's talk, "A Fortunate Generation", I'd like to encourage us to take a forward look.

My time at Price's was roughly bookended by the 1970 General Election and the Queen's Silver Jubilee in 1977.

As a political historian, I spend much of my academic life looking back and trying to interpret or re-interpret past events. I therefore have a mixed view of nostalgia, or rather more accurately the sort of wistfulness that often accompanies nostalgia, you know the sort of thing... "When I were a bairn... It were all fields round here. The summers were longer. The winters were warmer. And Christmases were always white".

While that sort of thing may bring us a little bit of comfort, when we look back, we have a tendency only to remember the good things a bit like Barbra Streisand or Gladys Knight singing "The way we were".

But those feel-good effects don't last long, we can become depressed, demoralised, and, dare I say, deadened. We can go around saying, "Things ain't what they used to be", or "fings" if you're Max Bygraves, (though personally I prefer Duke Ellington or even Gerry Mulligan's version of the tune) and end up believing it.

We can fall prey to pessimism, concentrating on the crises that surround us. And sure enough, we are seemingly living in a time of crises. The refugee crisis, the political crisis, the healthcare crisis, the on-going crises in Ukraine, in Syria, in Afghanistan, in Myanmar, in Tigray and, of course, the man-made climate crisis. All of this in the midst of the biggest worldwide pandemic for nigh on a century, with over six million dead worldwide, and of them more than 170,000 dead here in Britain, which when you think of it is not far off the whole population of Fareham and Gosport put together. Sadly one of that number was my own dear dad, who died last year of the disease, after spending three weeks in a coma, despite being cared for magnificently by our wonderful NHS.

A few years back, a YouGov survey showed that only 4% of Brits believed that the world was getting better, and that was before the pandemic.

But has society really got worse?

If we were to step back and look at the changes that have happened since Price's was founded (certainly in its final iteration in Park Lane in 1908) we shall see that there have been tremendous strides forward, even if we only look at what has happened since we celebrated the 250th anniversary of the school in 1971.

I'm a huge fan of the late Professor Hans Rosling, and if you've not already read his book Factfulness, I would strongly urge you so to do, or at the very least watch some of his programmes on the BBC, his TedTalks, his presentations on YouTube, or even his articles in the Guardian. They are a welcome antidote to the despair, despondency and gloom that we seem to be subjected to on the telly, the radio, and the papers, as well as the endless 24/7 doomscrolling we inflict on ourselves.

The tremendous improvements in standards of living, the dramatic decrease in child mortality, the vanquishing of many diseases and illnesses, the astonishing advances in science and technology, the unending quest for knowledge and education and their spread across the world, are not only amazing in themselves, but are likely to increase in the future. Providing of course, that we don't blow ourselves up first or plunder the planet to penury before we get to our better futures. Flying off to colonise Mars will not be a solution for everyone.

While some folk may hark back to a vanished or even non-existent glorious past, the truth is that until quite recently much of the world has lived under quite miserable conditions, and this has been true throughout most of human history.

Yet in the last handful of decades, almost every aspect of human existence has improved across the world. Extreme poverty has been radically reduced, life expectancy has increased immensely, there are fewer wars, more children are attending school, meaning there are fewer illiterates, and both child and maternal mortality rates have dramatically declined, polio has been all but eradicated, and fewer people than ever are dying in natural disasters. In short, everything we can measure objectively is steadily improving.

So I'd like to look at how life has improved world-wide for the vast majority, and then focus on life and Britain, and some of the challenges ahead.

Firstly, life expectancy continues to rise. When Price's moved to Park Lane, average life expectancy in Britain was around 40 years. This does not mean that most people died by the time they got to 40, it was high child mortality rates, women dying in childbirth, and common diseases like, smallpox, measles, and rubella that pulled down the average. In 1971, life expectancy at birth in the UK was 72±3 years, less for males more for females. In 2020, it had gone up to 83±1 years, again less for males more for females. And there are more of the super-old around now. Fewer than one-in-seven babies born in 1971 would live to reach 100, that figure is now more than one in three.

Secondly, fertility rates are falling. Even though many are concerned about the global population explosion, the fact is that fertility rates have fallen significantly across the world, and the UN predicts that the world's population will settle at about 11bn by the end of the century.

Thirdly, GDP growth has accelerated in developed countries. Western economies have been growing at an average of ~2%/year for the past century, meaning that real incomes double every 36 years. In Britain, even allowing for the 2008 financial crisis and the damaging impact of covid, the economy as a whole has more than doubled in size since 1971. Lower-income countries, especially China and India, have been growing at a considerably faster pace, with their economies doubling roughly every decade. Just to put that in context, every week, every week mind, a population the size of Hampshire is lifted out of poverty, so that just in this century alone, hundreds of millions of people have risen above the global poverty line. Every day, a population greater three times that of Fareham gets access to electricity and clean water for the first time.

Fourthly, global income inequality has gone down. For the first time ever since the Industrial Revolution, about half of the world's population can be seen as global middle-class. True, inequality within countries has gone up because of globalisation, there are now nigh on 3,000 billionaires world-wide. This perverse proliferation has a dark side, namely, the working poor. So you get the obscene situation where a bizarro like Elon Musk can afford to splash out $44bn on a whim to buy himself a shiny trinket like Twitter, just because he can. No championing democracy, like George Soros, or education like Jamsetji Tata, nor trying to eradicate malaria like Bill and Melinda Gates, nor even setting up libraries like Andrew Carnegie. But taken as a whole, inequality has actually gone down.

Fifthly, more people are living in democracies. Throughout most of human history people lived under oppressive non-democratic regimes. More than half of humanity is now living in a democracy, and of those still living in autocracies, 90% are in China. True there has been a recent rise in populism, or nostalgic nationalism, which has swept across many countries, bringing macho-authoritarians of the likes of Xi, Trump, Putin, Modi, Erdogan to power. Of course, we had our own version in Britain with Brexit, where the Leave campaign's frustration with the failure of our political class focussed its fury on foreigners and appealed to a regretful yearning for a time when Britain was seen as a dominant world power, not just a member of a club of 28 European countries.

Sixthly, and contrary to what you may believe, conflicts are on the decline. Pace Ukraine. For the first time ever, there has been no war or conflict in Western Europe in about four-score years.

This does not mean that all problems are solved, of course not. There are terrible problems in the world, and more are coming. But overall, in our lifetime, most things have gotten better for most people, especially in the developing countries.

That's why I'd like us to look ahead to the 2050s rather than back to the 1950s. There was a time, in the not too distant past when we in Britain were much more forward-looking, the Skylon of the Festival of Britain, Harold Wilson's "white heat of technology", the swinging sixties, the launch of Concorde, the equality and anti-discrimination legislations, even New Labour's anthem was, "Things can only get better".

We were ready to slough off the dead skin of our past and look hopefully to a shining future. We embraced modernity and progress, welcoming of new technology, new thinking, and newcomers alike.

That is why as a child of the Enlightenment, I describe myself as a data-driven dreamer, I have seen positive developments in the world, and I believe that we have greater opportunities than ever to solve our biggest problems thanks to science and open societies.

I am an optimist, who has a positive view of people and am convinced that together we can and shall solve the problems we face, by focussing on opportunities and solutions.

Climate change, artificial intelligence, nuclear war, bio-chemical weapons, and, of course, pandemics are just some of the existential risks of our time. But, none of these problems will be solved by themselves. We need to collaborate and co-operate across borders to work, imaginatively, inspirationally, and internationally.

We need to recapture the enthusiasm, optimism, and confidence of youth, not just for our community and our country, but dare I say, possibly pompously, for our world.

The single greatest challenge facing our world is climate change, the degradation of our natural environment, the destruction of our tropical forests, and the despoliation of our seas and rivers. Yet, even here, in the battle against an over-heating planet and our reliance on fossil fuels, advances in renewable technologies have been truly remarkable. Their share in providing our electricity in the UK has risen a hundred-fold to more than 15% and still rising. Researchers have engineered a portable desalination unit that can remove particles and salts to generate drinking water that exceeds WHO quality standards with just the push of a button. Furthermore, plastic-eating enzymes could eliminate billions of tons of landfill waste. I'm not a mere techno-utopian, but I genuinely believe that harnessing our innovative genius to the engine of political will help combat, nay conquer, this and other seemingly insurmountable obstacle.

And don't believe it when some folk tell you that we are selfish and out to only look after ourselves, and that there is no such thing as society, as a certain former PM of ours once said, or that the country is going to hell in a handcart. I can tell you from personal experience and for sheer facts, that it ain't so Joe!

When we were flooded in Hebden Bridge on Boxing Day 2015, not only did the whole town and surrounding villages pull together to help clean up the awful mess, repair the damage, and get the town going again, but so too did many many other folk from far and wide, including Sikh volunteers from Khalsa Aid from Slough (over 200 miles away), Muslim volunteers from across the border in Lancashire in the shape of the Rossendale Unity Welfare Society, as well as some lovely Syrian refugee lads from Manchester. Not to mention, dozens others from Halifax, Bradford, Huddersfield, Leeds, and Sheffield. We were truly humbled by all those acts of kindness, compassion, and generosity can-do spirit. I can give you thousands of examples of our innate humanity in wanting to help our fellow. The "clap for carers" tribute, saluting NHS and care workers during the first stage of the covid pandemic, the awe-inspiring volunteers staffing our food banks, the charity delivering beds and basics to children in poverty, the extraordinary response to the current Ukraine refugee crisis further shows the innate goodness of people. That we should condemn our fellow citizens to rely on foodbanks and charities for the basics of life in the sixth richest country of the world is a source of shame and the topic of discussion for another time and place.

I am convinced that were Price's still around today, the students, staff, and indeed the whole school community would be at the forefront of making things better. For they would have the passion, the resilience, the ingenuity, the compassion, the enthusiasm, and the stamina to improve the life of the town, the country, and indeed the world beyond our shores.

So in conclusion, I should like to tell you that I heartily disagree with Philip Larkin when he wrote, "Man hands on misery to man", rather I am with Thomas Jefferson in liking "the dreams of the future better than the history of the past", and I know that my time at Price's helped me and thousands like me to become better versions of ourselves and to look forward not back. I believe that we have helped our country, our society, our communities here in Britain, to become a kinder, gentler, better place to live where we not only tolerate difference but actually celebrate and revel in it, whether that difference is of colour, creed, sex, or sexual orientation. Were I to have a motto, it would be from the Mabinogion, "Bid ben, bid bont", which translates as, "If you want to lead, be a bridge". Well we are and must be that bridge from the past to the future.

Thank you.