First Scotland, now the EU: how did young English progressives end up fighting to save the status quo?

“I believe that the way things are is not the way things have to be”. The first line of Nick Clegg’s opening statement in ITV’s ‘First Ever TV Election Debate’ was my political awakening. It unlocked my passion for politics and it made me not only want to change the world, but it made me believe the world could be changed. I followed that passion pretty religiously- I signed up to the Liberal Democrats, volunteered everywhere from my local party in Hertfordshire to Edinburgh for the Scottish Referendum. I even ended up working for Nick in Westminster, first as an intern and then as a Communications Assistant between 2014 and the crushing blow that was Election Day 2015.

What I’m trying to say is that I feel I have given a lot to the cause of progressive liberalism. So why is it that I feel progressives like me are now running just to stand still? That we are no longer fighting to change the world and make it perfect, but to preserve it in its imperfection? Is this just what being an adult feels like? No, I feel that somewhere down the line we lost the argument and got put on the back foot, and our future depends on winning it back.

The truth is that I still believe the way things are is not the way things have to be. But that message of hope is a difficult one to sell when you’re trying to persuade people that they’re best off sticking with the devil they know and staying inside the EU. These aren’t the fights I want to be having- I want to be out there persuading people how much better our political system would work with proportional representation, not warning people about the economic dangers of pulling up our drawbridge and leaving the EU (even typing those lines felt more like a honed reflex than an actual heartfelt argument).

We have to rage against the dying of the progressive light. The issues we want to be out there campaigning on will feel utterly hollow if we campaign on the streets of a Britain that has sacrificed its place in the European Union. We may not have chosen to be the generation of progressives that had no choice but to roll its sleeves up and fight to defend causes rather than advance them, but right now that is what we are. We need to embrace it, and fight the good fight.

When you’re an activist for a party that is on 5% in the polls, it is easy to feel as though you’re fighting a losing battle, and your message isn’t getting through.

One of my favourite quotes is from I.F. Stone, who said:

The only kinds of fights worth fighting are those you’re going to lose, because somebody has to fight them and lose and lose and lose until someday, somebody who believes as you do wins.

I still want to change the world, and I still want to make it more liberal. This depressing fight against the political forces that seek to divide and tear up everything the great unifiers of history worked towards, be it the United Kingdom or the European Union or whatever else, will end. Once we win this referendum I hope we can turn once again to face the future and rediscover the Liberal instinct to look forward rather than backwards. Because the way things are is not the way things have to be.

* Adam Bennett is a former Liberal Democrat member & employee. He was Vice-Chairman of the Hertford and Stortford Liberal Democrats and worked as part of Sir Nick Clegg's communications team during his time as Deputy Prime Minister.

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13 Comments

  • Hi Adam nice article but could you write another one explaining what you did as a strategic research intern?

  • paul barker 7th Apr '16 - 11:12am

    We are polling in a range between 5% & 10%, consistent with the 7.5% we got last May. Pollinrg figures in general are in line with The General Election & this is normal. Most voters take a holiday from Politics after a General Election, they feel they deserve it. At some point voters will take some interest again & Polls will be worth looking at.

  • Matt (Bristol) 7th Apr '16 - 11:47am

    “I believe that the way things are is not the way things have to be”.

    YES.

    But the problem is that is what UKIP and many other parties also believe that, and they are contesting for different kinds of change, which some (many of us, for eg) consider to be retrogressive.

    For the LibDems and other ‘progressives’ who are pro-EU to be regarded as the party of the status quo, defending the elite, is obviously enormously damaging.

    But Adam, obviously we don’t know what role exactly you had with regard to Nick Clegg, but can you comment on why, for eg, in the debate with Farage in 2014, Nick said he saw the EU as being ‘much the same’ in ten years’ time?

  • To answer one part of the question. No it’s not what being an adult feels like. The reason, IMO, too many progressives are fighting to say static is because they have repeatedly conceded to the arguments of the “Right” which invariably pushes the metaphorical lifeboat further away and leaves them clinging onto the flotsam. In specific case of the EU they’ve convinced themselves that this monolithic, undemocratic, economically right wing, basically unpopular organisation is stopping the economic right even when the evidence that it hasn’t and has in fact aided it is all around them.

  • Adam Bennett 7th Apr '16 - 12:55pm

    Thanks for the comments everyone!

    Matt- I feel my reaction was similar to yours when Nick said that he saw the EU staying the same for the upcoming decade (one of confusion and disappointment). However, I wasn’t working for him at the time, and neither did I ever hold a position senior enough to be able to influence what he said on TV.

    Glenn- I agree we have lost the arguments to many on the right, but I hope winning this referendum will be the start of us turning the tables.

  • Adam – I’m struggling to see the point you’re getting at here.

    Liberal Democrats have never argued that things should stay the same. We have long argued that we are better off in the EU – but a reformed and improved EU. We also supported expansion, insofar as it took in former Eastern European countries; because of the economic climate, that’s not so feasible now but one day it will be again. We also argued strongly that we were better off in the UK, but as part of a reformed UK. Contrast that with Labour’s arguments that we were better off in the UK but couldn’t explain why, or the UKIP / Tory argument that we are better off out so that we can regress to the less liberal, overtly racist days of the 1950s and we are still putting a progressive platform.

    Being progressive doesn’t mean that you have to oppose everything. It does mean that you have to consider, accept and argue for change – but that can come from rejecting or reforming the status quo.

  • Matt (Bristol) 7th Apr '16 - 2:38pm

    Thanks Adam for your comment.

    Regarding the Scottish referendum, I think the party was maybe in retrospect too hasty to be so outrageously pro-Union (although I think it was reasonable of the party to be pro-Union, but that it needed to allow more clearly for dissenting voices within itself).

    There were too many people ready to repeatedly state their opinion that liberalism and nationalism could never be compatible, which is just not an absolute truth.

    Therefore, the SNP were able to position themselves as the party of positive change, and lob us in with the status quo, which we did not wish to defend.

    A major problem here is that British political culture is a two-party culture, a two-choice culture, and you are always adjudged to be either ‘for’ or ‘against’ any proposition (and obviously anyone who is on one side or another of such an argument agrees with all the other people on ‘their’ side.

    That is horrible reductionism, of course, and does not favour a party which tries to find an alternative way, but it should not be beyond us to find ways to surmount this considerable difficulty.

  • Bill le Breton 7th Apr '16 - 6:00pm

    Courage mon brave

  • jedibeeftrix 7th Apr '16 - 7:07pm

    @ Keith – “We also supported expansion, insofar as it took in former Eastern European countries; because of the economic climate”

    Not because it was the right thing to do? I always supported entry for EE, because it was a good strategic choice, and the right thing to do. And the same goes for Turkey.

    “Tory argument that we are better off out so that we can regress to the less liberal, overtly racist days of the 1950s”

    Likewise, i’m pretty sure they’d argue they want self governance, and not to avoid the imposition of governance the british populace wouldn’t otherwise choose for themselves…

  • Considering it was the “better together” campaign firstly in regards to the UK and now Britain in Europe isn’t it a little backwards to highlight only young English progressives? And if it is just young English progressives then your campaigns have failed now twice.

  • Simon Banks 8th Apr '16 - 2:01pm

    Well said. In fighting battles worth fighting that someone else has started (Scotland, EU) we need to keep stressing our aim is something better. Then start our own battles.

  • Neil Sandison 9th Apr '16 - 4:56pm

    Good article Adam .There is nothing wrong with campaigning to remain but as a progressive party we should not be afraid in our own campaigns to say what we would change .Too much horse trading in the council of ministers .improved democratic accountability to elected MEPs the peoples representatives particularly on regional policy decisions . Why does this institution need 2 seats of power the list goes on .We should not allow UKIP and their fellow travellers control the debate citing EU rules as a reason to leave but fighting the case for good regulation in Europe in the face of growing economic globalisation .Will he progressives please start making a noise or we will lose this vote

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