Mister Deputy Speaker, Mister Speaker, most excellent host, Excellencies, parliamentary colleagues, friends of the United Kingdom as I hope I can confidently say – we regard ourselves as friends of Estonia!
It is a huge honour and a privilege to be invited to be amongst your number today and to have the chance to express my goodwill and warmth on the part of my country towards all of you here assembled, the elected representatives of the people of Estonia. Thank you for the generosity on your invitation and the evident warmth of your welcome. It is my pleasure to be here.
As you all know, colleagues, I come as a representative of a very old Parliament, whose 157th speaker I am. We would claim to be the oldest parliament in the entire world, but I rather imagine that our friends in Iceland would probably dispute that, and I think it is fair to say that I am here as a representative of an old parliament but for the explicit purpose of hearing from and learning the lessons to be imparted by a much newer one. Having a long history has many advantages but it can of course make an institution slow, sometimes even sluggish to adapt to change. Estonia, by contrast, as a Parliament, Estonia as a society and Estonia as a national culture has proven to be an early pioneer in the quest to enhance democratic institutions through technological innovation. This is an observation I first made in a speech in New Zealand last summer and the subject has become a considerable personal priority for me as Speaker of the House of Commons. There are many reasons I hasten to emphasize and underline why a person might want to visit Estonia and I am sure that I will enjoy every aspect of this trip but the desire, colleagues, to understand more about your emerging e-democracy ranks without question as my principal objective.
Before I say anything further, Mister Deputy Speaker, colleagues, may I please take this opportunity to offer to you and to your people my personal condolences on the appalling tragedy that occurred yesterday just outside Tallinn. The families and friends of the victims will be in our minds at what must be for them quite the most harrowing imaginable time. It probably comes as no solace or comfort to the relatives of the victims to be told that on behalf of my parliament I emphasize we have experienced such tragedies and ordeals ourselves. But I would want – not the least as a mark of respect – to demonstrate solidarity and empathy with you.
Let me, if I may, before I say something about e-democracy, address the broader security situation and the political crisis that has been triggered in and around Ukraine. I appreciate that this has been a matter of the most enormous concern for parliamentarians here as, colleagues, candidly I must advise you, it is for us in the United Kingdom. Much time has been spent on this subject in the House of Commons. Many senior ministers, including the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and the Secretary of State for Defence have addressed the issue. Parliament in the United Kingdom recently heard and it did welcome an announcement from Philip Hammond, our Secretary of State for Defence, on the deployment of Royal Air Force Typhoon aircraft to reinforce Baltic Air Policing and I am pleased that preparations are now being made for their arrival in Lithuania by the end of the month. It is also very good to note that a large number of British soldiers will be here again in May for Estonia’s main military exercise of the year, Spring Storm. Both of these actions underline our strong commitment to the security of Estonia.
More broadly on defence policy, it is extremely encouraging that our already close bilateral partnership is continuing to deepen. I know that British military commanders have been immensely impressed by the professionalism and by the capability of the Estonian soldiers with whom they have served together in Helmand in Afghanistan. The Defence Agreement which our two countries signed in December commits us to an even closer relationship in the future, including the work which we are doing together on the development of the Joint Expeditionary Force. Furthermore, the visit to Estonia in May by his Royal Highness Prince Harry will be perhaps the most strikingly visible way in which the United Kingdom can thank Estonia for what we have done together to date, and look forward with confidence and anticipation to the future.
There is, Mister Deputy Speaker, colleagues, also from my vantage point and the vantage point of my parliament, a notable beaconcy about being here today and granted the privilege to address you, for I am conscious of the presentation of your proposed law on gender-neutral cohabitation. Needless to say, and for the avoidance of doubt, the legislation that you pass is you as parliamentarians, for your institution and for your people to decide upon and evaluate. I would simply like to make the point in passing, however, that the United Kingdom has gone down this track and it is something of which I think the majority of my parliamentary colleagues and fellow citizens are very proud of. A speaker of the UK parliament, you will appreciate that I will have to be the referee of the match and not a player for one team or the other. I must oversee in the chamber matters of controversy and I do not opine on same-sex marriage or indeed any other subject of dispute. My responsibility is simply to ensure the free and fair conduct of the match and to maximize the number of different voices and opinions that can be heard. That said, before I was elected as Speaker of the House of Commons, I did have a track record going back over a decade of campaigning for the rights of LGBT people. And for what is this worth, it seems to me that countering discrimination and fostering equality of esteem and equality before the law, equality of recognition are the right things to do. Discrimination against and harassment or ill-treatment of LGBT people frankly is demeaning, it is dehumanizing and it’s a denial of people’s natural and legitimate expectation that they will be treated equally with their fellow citizens before the law. In the United Kingdom we have gone over a period of 50 years, from the criminalization of a type of love to the actuality of equality before the law and it is something about which the bulk of my colleagues, including our Prime Minister and myself, are very proud. So you will pursue your own course but I wish you Godspeed and I would want you to know that you have many friends and admirers, as you seek progressively to move beyond the past to a more enlightened future.
The future for democracies such as our own has to including finding new ways to bond, colleagues, elected representatives more closely to the represented voter. This is a common challenge for legislatures throughout the world. We live in an age of intense media activity but, colleagues, with a media that is restless and a media that demands instant answers to questions which are often too complicated and challenging for an immediate reply. Legislatures are deliberative bodies. Deliberation is not easily reconciled with a 24/7 media schedule. We have to assert the right to think through important issues in the best possible manner while simultaneously reassuring our electorates that we are truly focused on the subjects of most concern to them. If we do not, we risk becoming increasingly irrelevant, mutating into symbolic political institutions, rather than what is required, namely institutions of serious substance and of topical focus. This is an outcome which we must strive to avoid. We must remain relevant. I believe that strong democracies require strong parliaments and that strong parliaments require strong links to citizens.
In this regard, for what it is worth, I am an optimist. I believe that new technology can assist us in our ambition to become ever closer to those whom we seek to serve. I think that the internet in all its manifestations can be the means by which we boost electoral participation and then increase personal participation in the vital work which each of our parliaments undertakes. The British Parliament, for example, has an extensive website and it deploys an array of social media to spread the message about the activities with which we are engaged. Yet we must use new technology to receive messages as well as to broadcast them. We need to listen and not simply to lecture or to appear to lecture. Young voters, in particular, will not be interested in us if we do not communicate with them by the means by which they communicate with each other. We have to be part of the smartphone age and not seemingly stuck in the stone-age.
For that reason, I have established in the UK a Digital Democracy Commission for the United Kingdom. Our objective, colleagues, is to consider how our parliamentary democracy can embrace the opportunities afforded by the digital world to become more effective, to become more effective in representing people, more effective in scrutinising the Government of the day, more effective in formulating law, more effective in encouraging citizens to engage with democracy and more effective in facilitating dialogue and engagement amongst citizens. This Digital Democracy Commission I have established is listening and talking to people, gathering evidence, from within the UK and across the globe. It will publish its recommendations in January 2015 – the 750th anniversary of our Parliament.
It is as part of that enterprise that I so wanted the opportunity, colleagues, to come to Estonia, or as I gather you are increasingly coming to be known, e-Estonia and to see for myself what is happening here. I confess that I am intrigued, as my colleagues increasingly are, by the widespread use of the Internet in voting at your elections. I am fascinated by the way that you use the internet to link people with problems or issues to this parliament and government departments alike, providing a better and more intimate service, frequently at a cost saving. I note the innovative means by which you are integrating crowd sourcing techniques into your civil society. I am also struck, if I may say so with deference and appreciation, by the sheer speed at which in your country to your credit all of this is happening.
Your country should be proud of the reputation which it has achieved for technological leadership in this regard. Estonia is rapidly being seen as E-stonia by all those looking for new ideas in this territory. It also demonstrates your wider, to be candid, astonishing success, astonishing success as a people over the past 25 years, in not just re-establishing your sovereignty but in asserting your identity. This is a place where people, including myself today, go to look for the future. I am so pleased that you have offered me this opportunity to conduct that search on behalf of the House of Commons. An ancient parliament looking to learn from a much less ancient parliament.
In thank you for the warmth of your welcome, and the chance to learn from your best practice, let me conclude by taking this opportunity to wish you and your fellow citizens peace, prosperity and successful partnership with friends and neighbours in Europe and throughout the world.
Colleagues, thank you very much indeed!
The Riigikogu Press Service
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