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David Puttnam

Lord Puttnam contributes to Conduct of Debate in Public Life

Lord Puttnam contributes to Conduct of Debate in Public Life

11 May, 2019

On  Thursday, the House of Lords discussed issues around the conduct of debate in public life. During the debate, Lord Puttnam made an intervention on his own experience of populism, the importance of maintaining civility throughout national life and the fragility of our democracy. 

The intervention and debate is available on Hansard

"My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Harris, for making this debate possible. It is timely and it certainly is important.

Almost 49 years ago, I travelled to Heidelberg to meet Albert Speer, Hitler’s former architect and Armaments Minister, who had recently been released after 21 years in Spandau prison. I had audaciously put in a bid to buy the film rights to his then best-selling book, Inside the Third Reich. Like many born during wartime, I was desperately eager for a better understanding of how Hitler came to power, with consequences that dominated the lives of my parents’ generation.

By some miracle of luck and timing, my partner and I won the rights to the book, which led to our spending many hours probing and questioning Speer’s ​motivations, with the opportunity to go well beyond what was actually in the book. One story in particular stands out. He said that he was walking in Berlin a day or two after Kristallnacht, surveying the damage done to Jewish property and shops. He claimed to have been appalled by what was going on, but by now his principal concern was that the glass was cleared away before any child fell and cut themselves. He made the point that it is quite shocking how quickly the unthinkable becomes thinkable, then normalised, and, eventually, in the final phase of populism, brutally enforced.

In chapter 2 of his book, he writes:

“I did see a couple of rough spots in the Party doctrine. But I assumed they would be polished in time …The crucial fact appeared to me to be that I personally had to choose between a future Communist Germany or a future National Socialist Germany, since the political center between these antipodes had melted away. Moreover in 1931 I had reason to believe that Hitler was moving in a more moderate direction … Hitler was trying to appear respectable in order to seem qualified to enter the government”.

In other words, he was seeking to legitimise himself and his party in order to take back control. Does any of that sound remotely familiar? In the event, we produced two documentaries. The first, entitled “Double-Headed Eagle”, covered the years 1918 to 1933, and the second, “Swastika”, took the story from 1933 to 1945. [You can view the trailer for the Swastika documentary here]

I have always believed that this narrative ought to be compulsory viewing for anyone attracted to the simplistic rants of Nigel Farage or his venomous counterpart, Stephen Yaxley-Lennon—or “Tommy Robinson”, as he prefers to be called. When I was growing up, the term “nationalistic” was synonymous with a particularly pernicious form of authoritarian government. Somehow, the debates in this country around Brexit have allowed it to become somewhat re-legitimised. Nationalism is not the same as patriotism and they should never, ever be confused. This drift is a process that we in this House should be doing everything possible to overcome. To better inform that opposition, I thoroughly recommend an excellent new book by the young historian Tim Bouverie, entitled Appeasing Hitler.

Last Friday, the Labour MP Lisa Nandy gave the Clement Attlee Memorial Lecture at University College Oxford. It was a wonderful lecture and I can do no better than quote directly from it. She said:

“The problems of a deeply divided nation, and the many heartfelt views on Brexit, and the things Brexit has come to symbolise, are not going to vanish. They are complex, demanding of nuance and will not be wished or voted away”.

She went on to say:

“Never think that ‘the blood-dimmed tide’ is a threat only to immigrants and minorities. It is a threat to all of us. We all need constitutional protection, we need a centre that holds. Those who believe in civil discourse, who respect the truth, must be willing to find a common cause”.

I cannot top that, other than to remember that, in the final chapter of what was to be his last book, the late Lord Clarke—Kenneth Clarke—asks himself which of all human qualities he most values. It would be reasonable to assume that, as our foremost art historian, he would opt for some cultural reference. Instead he offers just one word: “civility”.

Civility will not be regained by accident. It is my belief that every member of your Lordships’ House has an absolute obligation to ensure that civility once ​again becomes the watchword in the practice of politics in this country. When he replies, I sincerely hope that the Minister will offer the Government’s determination not to allow extremism in its many forms to undermine what all noble Lords seem to realise is a dangerously fragile democracy."