My interview with Ben was as enticing for me as it was nostalgic for him. His time at the University of York as a mere student was dominated by youth politics, debating, campaigning for causes and standing up for what he calls ‘liberal democracy’. He served as YUSU president in the mid-late 1980s, championing free speech through enabling speakers of all political persuasions to speak on campus, including the Thatcherite former Education Secretary Keith Joseph who was deplatformed at the time by the union. He also recalls a time when funds for the student union were frozen, and he helped gather 3,500 people to challenge this and stand against it. His politics seem to come from a place of principle but also action as opposed to rhetoric. The commitment to solving problems and garnering mass support to do so. His time in politics and campaigning has long since changed to be something quite different, but the passion is evidently still there. His Jewish faith is also incredibly important to him, and he regards the freedom of religion as a defining characteristic of any true democracy.
Before the interview he showed me a snippet from an old copy of Nouse featuring one of his campaigns within YUSU, standing up for the ‘powerless in a world of powerful people’. He met the former leader of the Liberal Democrats, Tim Farron, at an early age when he was running for the NUS executive slate. Both became lifelong friends and Ben went on to direct his campaigns strategy. My interest throughout was harnessed not necessarily by Ben’s choice of political party; (the Liberal Democrats), but his philosophical foundation for his political youth. The influence of real-life events and deplatforming ignited the flame for him to serve in the union and argue for diverse political representation on campus. Nevertheless, the inevitable question of ‘why the Lib Dems?’ cropped up early. His answer was based on intrinsic values as opposed to the political game. The idea that in his eyes there were liberals in all mainstream parties, and he joined because he wanted to be part of a platform that contributed ‘non-ideological, non-tribal ideas that could flourish.’
This brought me on to the work he does currently as the CEO of Radix. Radix, he explains, is a cross-party alliance think tank for the radical centre ground of British politics. It is designed to champion radical but realistic ideas from all parties that seek to empower people outside the Westminster model and encourage system reform for a better world. The guiding philosophy behind it is that it favours policy solutions over politics. I was privileged to attend their opening summit back in November, being able to watch several speeches from politicians such as Stephen Kinnock, Michael Heseltine and Thangam Debbonaire. The breakout session included a policy discussion on the future of housing policy in an age of sky-rocketing house prices, mortgage rates and low property ownership, not to mention the lack of social housing across the UK.
Radix is hosting this year’s ‘big tent ideas festival’ in York, an opportunity for high-profile think tanks, politicians, local activists, community leaders and students to engage in healthy democratic debate about the most pressing and fundamental issues facing Britain today such as housing, net zero and the global energy crisis. Ben stresses the idea that the event is all about experts listening to the people as opposed to the other way round. It will take place in Dean’s Park on 17th June and admission is free. There are also plenty of volunteering options for students wanting an insider’s gaze of the event, having special access to the speakers and the discussions. Having chosen York as the city to host the event this year, Ben explained the decision was driven by the cross-party representation in York as well as the variety it has to offer people in terms of cultural heritage and diversity.
I finish the interview by asking Ben a particularly challenging question on how his think tank can maintain relevance in an age of divisive rhetoric, endless social media discourse and the dichotomy of the political left and right that dominates our politics. He talks of the significance of civil society and disagreeing agreeably in the context of the political arena. He wants Radix to be a place to bring people together for the common good as opposed to dividing out of spite. Businesses, politicians, students, researchers to name a few. At the end of the day, he stresses, democratic debate must be about championing liberal democracy and discussing policy in a civil sense. For the greater good, Ben suggests, the system produces better outcomes when there is fundamental political consensus over the most challenging issues of today. This not only drives his politics and passion, but should be reflected throughout wider society.