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Lord Purvis of Tweed makes keynote speech at Borjomi workshop (8 July 2017) 

Keynote address by Lord Purvis of Tweed, a member of the upper house of the UK Parliament, the House of Lords, and of its International Affairs Committee at the workshop on Global Challenges organised by LINKS (DAR) in Borjomi, Georgia.

Lord Purvis said that he did not come from a political family – his ideas were formed by his life experiences, and the people he had encountered. They were influenced by the fact that he was a borderer, born in Scotland close to the border with England.

Lord Purvis said that no time in human history has seen such rapid social, economic, technological and political, change in such a short time, as humanity has experienced since the time when he was born in 1974. For those who have lived through this period this has been either a thrilling or a threatening time. For those that have good education skills, and live in a reasonably stable environment, this has been a thrilling time. On the other hand, for those who do not have the right skills, or who live in unstable regions, this very often seemed like a threatening time. People have looked at different responses to this period of intense change, and in many ways what ensured was a dichotomy.

Lord Purvis reflected on the changes of the last four decades and said that in many sectors there had been huge progress:

“In 1974 there were fewer democracies, but in a way the world was much more stable. The certainties of the cold war were reassuring for many people, including policy-makers, but much has changed. Many changes were for the better. The population of the world has grown from 3.9 billion in 1974, to 7.5 billion today. The world economy has grown astronomically from USD 5.5 trillion to USD 76.7 trillion, and per capita GDP from USD 1,400 to USD 10,300 globally. This marked economic development reflects itself in life expectancy, which has increased from 61 to 72, whilst child mortality has reduced from 132 per thousand births to 43. People are more prosperous, healthier and better educated today, and there is more emphasis on social spending. Spending on defence has gone down from 3.7% to 2.2 %.

In many ways today’s world is also much smaller. The number of air passengers in 1997 was 401 million, the number of persons travelling by air in 2016 was 3.7 billion. The world is much more closely connected as a result of the internet. Half a trillion text messages are sent out every day compared to hardly any until the mid-1990s.

Politically too there has been progress: the number of countries considered democratic or largely democratic in 1974 was 34, today it is 87 the number of people living in a democratic or largely democratic environment has risen from 1.7 billion in the 1970s to 4.1. billion today.”

Lord Purvis said that however therein lay many of the current challenges:

“What comes with democracy is a belief that the individual is a stakeholder; democracy establishes a social contract which requires the government to deliver against the expectations of those who vote it to power. What is happening now however is that the expectations of the voters are outstripping the ability of the democratically elected governments to deliver. The growths in the populations are creating greater needs for services and trained staff in schools, hospitals etc. Demographic challenges in the aging countries of the west and the far east, and demographic pressures in the youthful populations of Africa and the MENA region require levels of investments that are not being met, and state coffers are not able to meet demand. I do not think that with the present economic path they are likely to be met in the future either.”

Lord Purvis then addressed some of the other challenges facing the world at the moment, including population shifts from rural regions to mega cities, climate change, and the competition for water resources. He said that while more and more people are living in democracies, and aspire to live in prosperity, the harsh truth was that this was probably the first generation in the west for centuries that would not be able to leave to the next generation a better level of prosperity and opportunity than the one they had inherited. This was an unprecedented development in global human development. In other parts of the world, such as Syria and Gaza, we were actually seeing negative development, something that should shame our generation.

Lord Purvis said that the youth demography in Africa make it the most exciting, innovative and creative continent on earth, but equally the development challenges are immense, and employment opportunities, especially for the highly educated, remain elusive.

Lord Purvis said that technological development, digital connectivity, demographic and other societal changes were some of the current challenges facing the world. For the west there is also the concern about the growing rise of China, and the increasing assertiveness of India. Both have a different concept of the west-based international order, and western countries are having to come to terms with this. But even within that order the level of commitment is different as was seen by the Russian annexation of Crimea, and president Trump’s isolation policy. This was an unsettling time in global governance.

Lord Purvis added,

“In the UK we are asking if the multilateral bodies of which we are members are now fit for purpose, whether we should push for their reform, or if we should consider membership in them altogether. We are not talking simply of the EU, but also of NATO, the IMF, the World Bank, and even the UN. Are these institutions set up after the seismic global conflict of WW2 now fit for purpose, and for the challenges that we are now facing. On the other hand new bodies are being established such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, originally a Chinese initiative but one in which now the UK has invested USD 100 million. Are these new institutions complementing or competing with the long established institutions such as the IMF and the World Bank? These are questions we need to ask at home and abroad. There needs to be new thinking because the challenges are immense.”

Lord Purvis then highlighted other challenges, including the unprecedented migration of people between countries and continents which has seen 1.5 million people moving in the Mediterranean through Turkey alone in the last few years, and mass communication. On the latter, Lord Purvis said that people no longer get their news solely, nor even primarily, from their national broadcaster. Instead people increasingly rely on “referred news”, which may be true or fake, but because it is referred to them directly they are more likely to believe it.

“Very often it is a filtered story and it is more likely to align to your existing views, either extreme or benign, rather than challenge it or stimulate new thinking. This has now become fertile ground for those wanting to influence public opinion through social media. It is having huge impact on public opinion and political matters. These practices rely heavily on big data analytics, artificial intelligence, and machine learning algorithms, not just in the process of gathering news, but also in disseminating it, and because it is influencing public opinion it is also influencing politicians.

I mentioned already that more than four billion people now live in democracies. Democracies are living institutions, and they are vulnerable. Politicians are open to influence by public opinion – they receive letters and phone calls and emails from the public which they have to take into account, however if people are being influenced by unscrupulous on-line platforms they will inevitably also influence the parliamentary decision making process. We have already seen in the most powerful and richest country in the world how its election and political process has been systematically and successfully attacked and influenced. Smaller and developing nations, or those that do not have capacity in their regulatory system to have safeguards, are finding it impossible to address these threats. Their only recourse is to revert to the power of the state to regulate, but this is proving difficult and challenging. Over the last year social media was restricted in many MENA countries, including Turkey, Saudi Arabia, UAE and Morocco. 2017 has seen a continuation of reactive responses where the traditional control of the nation-state on media and news ebbs. This is a dichotomy. The closure of al Jazeera was one of the demands of the four blockade states against Qatar recently – yet Al Jazeera Arabic has over 1.5 million subscribers. There are now new norms in the way states in the region operate.

Social media is now much more influential in the MENA region than it was in the Arab Spring in 2012, because its audience is far bigger. It is difficult to factor this into the decision-making process because the time frame in which decision-making is done is slow. Politicians do have to react quickly to stories unfolding on the television screens, but on policies we still work on a fixed time period, where normally we enact laws, and then allow a period of ten to fifteen years to pass to see the impact before moving to make any changes. But if we take the Arab Spring, although it only happened six years ago, the situation today is radically different. For example the number of facebook users in the MENA region has tripled since 2012; social media is driven by smart phones, and 93% of users do so connect to the internet through a mobile device. So even in this short time the nature of media usage has changed considerably.

Communications challenges are not only defying the traditional limits of state boundaries, but can also bring with it threats to national security. The day Britain launched its new £6 billion aircraft carrier, The Queen Elizabeth, from its berth in the Rosyth Dockyard in Scotland, I could not access my parliamentary email because the British Parliament was under cyber-attack. This was a determined, even if ultimately unsuccessful attack. I was surprised that it did not receive as much media attention as it should have. The incident, and the response to it, struck me that the way we operate, even in the mainstream media, is way behind the curve.

Since that weekend there have been two other cyber-attacks against the British parliament. They failed but nonetheless they were relentless and co-ordinated attacks, and in many ways state sponsored. We believe the first attack was from a cyber centre outside Moscow, resourced with small amounts of money, when you compare it to the £6 billion aircraft carrier.

So how are people responding to this massively complex situation? Some messages from world leaders are simple and beguiling. People like Putin, Erdogan, Trump. and to a lesser extent Modi in India, propose a simple response. They say that in this threatening world you need a leader to stand up for you, and if you are proud to be a member of a nation state, than that nation state needs to be protected because you are also at risk and not only the state. There is therefore the need for “a strong man”. I use the term not pejoratively but deliberately, as there is an underlying sexism in how the many, particularly young men who do not have role models, are responding to alpha male politicians. Consider what happened in the US, where a tougher, more coherent Presidential candidate, was challenged by a businessman who was an alpha male and who promised to put America First. But the issues that I raised cannot be solved by simple solutions from alpha male politicians using nationalist discourse. In Europe the possible emergence of a Macron-Merkel alliance may help provide an alternative.”

The need for new thinking – International Globalisation Goals and Rules.

Lord Purvis spoke about the need for new thinking to address the current challenges

“As a politician and as a liberal I am perhaps not particularly good at innovation. In 1959 the Liberal Party in Britain contested the election on a manifesto that was described by the then Conservative Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, as being “full of original and innovative ideas”. He however hastened to add that “none of the original ideas in it were innovative, and none of the innovative ideas, original”. Nonetheless we are in desperate need of original and innovative thinking, and I suggest that we need to match the Global Development Goals, successfully promoted by the United Nations, with a new set of International Globalisation Goals and Rules.

Tim Burners-Lee who invented the internet is proposing a Magna Carta of the World Wide Web – basic principles of rights and freedoms and responsibilities on the use of the web. That kind of debate will be very challenging in many parts of the world. I want to add a few more suggestions of what can be included in new International Globalisation Goals Rules:

• A Technology United Nations – with a common technological regulation across the world

• Common agreements on defining extreme ideology, and a common response to it.

• Global agreement on fair taxation; common employment rules and rights so that we can have transferability of contract laws, and so that we can eradicate once and for all the scourge of modern slavery;

• Consistent and persistent adherence to human rights, so that we do not have ambiguous interpretations;

• A UN Parliament where we have deliberative legislation based on policy, but operating virtually and digitally, and entirely inclusive which whilst not simple providing for knee jerk responses can still be responsive to developments across the world;

• Cyber peacekeepers we will need them in the future in the same way we need the blue helmets in Cyprus and other places in the past;

• Parliamentarians need to start thinking of themselves in a global context. MPs should have the right to participate in debates across borders.

In conclusion, Lord Purvis said,

“We cannot turn the clock back to 1974 when I was born, but we can learn from some of the things we conducted ourselves then, and translate some of this into how we need to work in this new digital and technological world. In this way we can ensure that the seismic changes that have happened in the world do not threaten us, but thrill us.”

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