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6 January 2017updated 16 Sep 2021 4:24pm

The centre ground is the key to our political salvation

Proponents of an open, tolerant society must find a new voice to speak against the foghorns of populism

On the morning of June 24th 2016 we woke to the news that the United Kingdom had voted to leave the European Union. I was struck by an immediate and very emotional feeling the future of my country and the future of my children had been altered forever. 

I am a working class northern Englishman. I also consider myself proudly British and proudly European. I’ve never felt any of those constituent parts of my identity are in conflict. 

Yet, on that morning, I felt part of my identity had been taken away. It was strange and upsetting. A week later I joined tens of thousands of people marching in London. I realised they felt the same sense of dispossession. I also saw there were millions of people across the country determined to show they still stood up for the values of being open, tolerant and united, embodied in the ideals of the European Union.

That gave me hope.

As leader of the Liberal Democrats, I am the last person to pretend we – as a party – have had an easy time of it in recent years. The General Election saw us reduced to just eight MPs. The referendum produced a result that directly challenges the party on over 60 years of political history of proudly supporting friendship and co-operation with our European neighbours. 

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Last year also saw any sense of a liberal consensus in politics turned on its head. The conventional political expectations of pundits and commentators have been confounded again and again. 

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We saw it in the United States with the election of Donald Trump. We see it elsewhere with the rise of Marine le Pen in France, the Alternative für Deutschland in Germany and even Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines. As the political and economic problems facing western democracies grow more complex and challenging, movements advocating simplistic, authoritarian, sloganeering solutions are growing in popularity. 

The denigration of “experts” and the angry, emotional culture of post-truth politics has become part of our mainstream political discourse. Self-interested elites – quite often the same self-interested elites that people have become disconnected from – use its language to paint the things that strengthen us as threats in order to sure up their own positions.

Climate change is dismissed as the preserve of cranks and scaremongers. Civil liberties are regarded as wishy-washy liberal nonsense only protecting terrorists and we will be much safer if the state is allowed to monitor all our online activity. Diversity and multiculturalism are portrayed as threats to our way of life, instead of recognising differences make us stronger and better able to keep pace with a changing world.

There is a reason these movements have been able to be so successful. Around the world there is a very real sense those at the top of our politics have lost touch with everyday reality. The established political industry is seen as self-serving, no longer addressing the needs of the communities it purports to represent.

In the face of this, the Conservative Party is being tugged to the right, in hock to its nationalistic Brexiteers. Meanwhile, the Labour Party is paralysed and fast-becoming redundant. It is hopelessly disunited and unable to connect with either traditional Labour voters or the mainstream voting public. It could be a moment for those of a liberal and rational disposition to despair.

However, liberals – and Liberal Democrats particularly – are optimists. And the electoral landscape in the UK shows there is an opportunity for us to fill the space being vacated by Labour and the Conservatives. 

In local council by-elections, we have made more gains than any other party – and by a very significant margin. In the three contested parliamentary by-elections since the referendum in June, Labour has performed appallingly.

In Witney it finished a distant third, behind the Liberal Democrats. In Richmond Park, where we overturned a 23,000 Conservative majority to win, Labour lost its deposit. And in Sleaford and North Hykeham, the Liberal Democrats were the only party to increase its share of the vote (and indeed its actual vote), beating Labour into fourth.

There is a huge opportunity for those with liberal ideas to make significant advances if they tell their story in emotive language that makes sense and offer solutions, not shallow and self-serving rhetoric. 
Liberals have long been afraid to claim the mantle of patriotism, fearing its association with an ugly jingoism. But patriotism and nationalism are not the same thing. Nationalism is a narrow-minded fervour for country, motivated by fear and hatred of others.

It is nasty and jingoistic. Patriotism, by contrast, is an opportunity to celebrate the values that make a country what it is. For me, Britain is welcoming, outward-looking and ready to lead in the world.

Alexander van der Bellen, the self-described centrist liberal who beat the right-wing populist Norbert Hofer in the recent Austrian election, campaigned on a slogan: “Those who love their homeland don’t divide it.” He made an emotional connection with voters that expressed his liberal values. As we did in Richmond Park, he showed it is possible to offer a robust and liberal alternative to right-wing populism.

I am interested in a politics that challenges those who pursue ideology, such as Brexit at any cost, at the expense of rising inequalities in health and education. I want us to ensure we don’t jeopardise our culture of entrepreneurship or a sustainable future for our children through short-term decisions taken by out-of-touch elites simply playing out the demands of the populist echo-chamber. 

I believe our liberal values embody the best values of the United Kingdom. If 2016 saw the angry rejection of the political establishment, 2017 must be the year of liberal challenge to the new, post-truth consensus.