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The Essence of being Human: Wilton Park and the new debate on our common values

Tom Cargill, Chief Executive at Wilton Park
Tom Cargill, Chief Executive

The celebrations of 100 years of China’s Communist Party on the 1 July, is provoking understandable reflections on the relative strengths and weaknesses of China’s one party model.

This is particularly so since we have just seen a re-invigorated G7 make a series of strong statements, including on values and open societies in many respects in contrast to the centralised state control of the Chinese model.

The growing economic strength of China, powering significant advances in technology and its military power, has certainly challenged assumptions that only democracies can deliver prosperity. The financial crisis of 2008 amongst other events, including of course the challenges many richer democracies are grappling with in dealing with the COVID pandemic, have also been brandished as evidence that the open democratic societies of Europe, North America and elsewhere are no longer necessarily the best models for the world.

Related to all of this, the fundamentals of the Rules Based International System, so important to promoting the relative stability, freedom and growth enjoyed by much of the planet are being increasingly challenged. There are those who argue it reflects an outdated and colonial world order. Others similarly claim that the failings of democracies amount to a hypocrisy that hides a global system of ‘might is right’ that should simply be recognised.

Heinz Koeppler and Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh
Heinz Koeppler and Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh

Yet the fact that the admittedly many failings of democratic societies occur almost routinely in the relentless glare of global attention should give us pause for thought.

Wilton Park was established 75 years ago this year as the second World War was coming to an end and the British government realised the UK had a responsibility to encourage the development of a new liberal and democratic culture in post-war Germany if the mistakes of the past were to be avoided. These far sighted diplomats had the insight and self awareness to realise that pretending democratic culture is perfect, or that any real life democracy such as the UK could provide a perfect model for Germany was absurd. Instead, led by the pioneering British German academic Heinz Koeppler, Wilton Park was specifically designed from the start to expose participants to the British model of democracy, warts and all, with speakers from all parts and points of view across British society invited to speak to the German participants about how they saw Britain.

Inevitably this highlighted as many of the failings as the virtues of the British system, but in doing so it not only projected a powerful credibility to a generation spoon fed propaganda, but also inspired a recognition and fierce discussion of how it is a set of values as much as institutions that underpin a healthy society – including a commitment to openness, democracy and a rule of law grounded in a respect for human rights.

The result was a post-war generation of German leaders whose values and ideas had been influenced by the cut and thrust of Wilton Park discussions. It is a mission we have gradually expanded and continued to this day, now gathering participants from around the world to bring new insights and diverse perspectives on the many global challenges we all face. Yet it is values that frame all of these discussions, and we are identifying a growing demand to deepen understanding of the values which are required to underpin effective leadership to tackle these challenges – whether from within business, government, faith groups or wider civil society.

None of us have a monopoly on truth. Yet this vital discussion simply could not take place honestly in a society that subordinates truth to order, or the individual to the collective. It is telling that Wilton Park has no equivalents in non democratic states. It is our very openness about our flaws which enables the self examination, discussion and relationships required to evolve and sustain healthy societies. No system is perfect, but as we look to address a queue of very real threats to our future as a planet and a species, we should think very carefully about the values we would want to pass on to future generations, and how they will judge the values driving our behaviours today.