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Robert Peston delivers the Holyoake Lecture 2019: ‘Mending a fractured society’

Robert Peston. Photo by Rich Hayward  (CC BY 2.0)

Robert Peston, journalist, broadcaster, and Political Editor at ITV News delivered the Holyoake Lecture 2019 to an audience of over 300 in central Manchester on Thursday 21 November.

No politician was spared criticism in a fast-moving and wide-ranging lecture on ‘Mending a fractured society’ – or ‘Humpty Dumpty Britain’. Peston argued that though economies have their ups and downs, the shattering of the UK’s legal, political, and social institutions could see our way of life suffer long-term and irreparable harm.

Peston noted that our standard of living has still not returned to pre-2008 levels, and that it may not do so until the middle of the next decade. He asked his audience to consider what effects this might have on the political culture and examined the changes in the nature of political campaigning and electioneering, suggesting that national newspaper headlines seemed almost an irrelevance in comparison to the growing influence of social media and targeted advertising.

He considered whether the ‘broad church’ nature of political parties – which have historically had to accommodate a wide spectrum of opinions due to the disproportionate effects of our ‘first-past-the-post’ voting system on smaller parties – could be coming to an end, with ideological ‘purity’ being valued more and more highly, and suggested that significant electoral reform measures could well be brought before Parliament regardless of who wins the next election. He also explored the corrosive effects of the increasing prevalent language of ‘betrayal’ in contemporary political rhetoric, and the threat that it poses to our democratic norms and institutions as society is increasingly divided into opposing camps and an embittered ‘culture war’.

Humanists UK Chief Executive Andrew Copson, said, ‘Robert Peston was an excellent Holyoake Lecturer, and his talk – in the middle of the general election campaign – could not have been more timely. As defenders of liberal democracy, the rule of law, human rights, and an evidence-based approach to public policy, humanists have a lot of work to do.’


The Holyoake Lecture is held in Manchester annually, and explores aspects of politics or a contemporary social or political issue, especially as it relates to secularist and humanist issues, including liberalism, democracy, social justice, feminism, anti-racism, LGBT rights, or equality.

It is just one of the many events in the Humanists UK Annual Lecture series, which also includes the Darwin Day, Rosalind Franklin, and Voltaire Lectures. In 2020, these three events are available as a package, with the Multi-Lecture Pass.

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