Thoughts on York

So, what was the most enduring memory of the York Liberal Democrat Spring Conference? Tim Farron taking on the Tories in a rousing final speech, or Nick Clegg in blistering form on Brexit? The feisty debate on faith schools, or the brief flirtation with unilateral nuclear disarmament, cunningly timed to coincide with England’s Grand Slam decider?

Or was it York itself, magnificent in the spring sunshine, giving us the perfect backdrop to the #libdemfightback?

Well, for me, the abiding memory is being a part of a vast hopeful army of conference newbies, who, like me, had chosen to get up off the canvas of 2016′s despair and do something- anything- to stop the world lurching into hate-filled extremism.

You can’t bottle “essence of York spring 2017″. But if you could, you might be intoxicated by the scent of a new libdemmery. One that had a heady dose of optimism, energy and hopefulness. But also a hint of something bloody, a visceral sense of patriotism that Tim Farron captured by announcing “I want my country back”.

It isn’t very Liberal Democrat to beat your chest and go on about being proud of your identity, is it?

And to be fair to Tim, any beating of chests was metaphorical rather than literal. 

But there was a sense of a shifting of the plates. Of corners being turned. And of normal, sensible, not very politically ambitious people suddenly catching fire in the common effort to do something to save their country.

And it was beautiful to be a part of- like a Springsteen gig when everybody stops being a proper grown-up and melts into the euphoric aspiration of “Born to Run”.

Well, OK, it was a bit like that.

But the Boss is £75 a ticket, and first timers at conference certainly pay a lot less to get their kicks.

And there are probably less subcultures in Springsteen-land than at a LibDem conference, where the first-timer is enticed by the rival stalls of the Green LibDems, Friends of Syria, Friends of Palestine, Christians, Secular-Humanists, and, most bizarrely, leather handbag salesmen. I felt sorry for these guys, who could have turned their leather making skills to great profit if only they’d thought of ventilated footwear. So close, and yet so far… 

Which might be the party’s fate once again in the first-past-the-post system. But we’ll see, we’ll dream, and we’ll hope a lot more folks will join us.

“Who’d have thought it would be radical to be sensible?” Tim asked, using a nice line that crystallised the moment British politics finds itself in in this week of Article 50, Momentum vs Labour and the unlikely alliance of John Major and Tony Blair. 

A lot will depend on how many decide to defend that sensible, free and open Britain that felt alive and strong this past weekend. Because, as ever, activists are not enough.

It’s the hearts and minds of voters, and non-voters, that will decide whether Britain survives as a decent, liberal nation. If it is to survive at all.

* Lee Howgate is a Lib Dem activist who lives in South Devon. He is a senior leader at a large comprehensive school in Cornwall, and formerly worked for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office with experience in Russia and the EU. You can follow him on tumblr where he posts as leetheliberal

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