Tomorrow is the fourth Thursday in November, so Americans, in the US and across the world, will be celebrating Thanksgiving.
Whenever I have been invited to Thanksgiving dinners, one of my favourite traditions is when everyone sitting around the table mentions something which they are grateful for in their lives.
People often mention something personal – their family and friends – but sometimes they also talk about the bigger picture. So as we reflect this year, one thing I think we should all be grateful for in the UK and North America is the freedom we have to campaign for our beliefs.
The luxury of this freedom was brought home to me at two conferences I contributed to in recent weeks – a Future Leaders Connect retreat organised by the British Council in Cambridge, and then the Atlas Network’s Liberty Forum in New York. Both meetings included campaigners, community organisers, and policy leaders from across the world.
I enjoy mentoring young campaigners from different countries and from all points on the political spectrum, because I strongly believe that policy advocacy provides an essential means of changing the world – sometimes more influential even than political office.
But when I speak to these young leaders, I am always reminded of the freedom we have to campaign compared to other countries, which do not enjoy the rule of law, freedom of association, a free media, and all the other tenets of an open political system.
No system is perfect, and plenty of mud has been thrown in the UK since the referendum. But I believe that Brexit actually proves that the UK political system is in good health.
Campaigners on the Leave side should rightly be proud of two key achievements.
First, we managed to galvanise enough pressure to force David Cameron to commit to holding a referendum in his Bloomberg Speech in 2013.
Then, in 2016, against the combined forces of all the major parties, the government, trade unions and business groups, major charities, international organisations and heads of state, we managed to win the referendum.
This was a major achievement, not predicted by the majority of polls and commentators, and it was down to the hard work of activists and campaigners over many decades.
Some individuals played a decisive role. Others contributed to the overall team effort as activists. But all deserved credit for the victory.
However, the story didn’t end on 23 June 2016. We have since moved from both sides agreeing during the campaign that a vote to Leave meant leaving the Single Market and customs union, to a draft withdrawal agreement published last week which is far less clear-cut.
Why did this policy shift take place? There have been many turning points, which will no doubt be the subject of books and PhD theses for decades to come.
Some point to Cameron’s resignation after the referendum. Others consider the moment when Michael Gove withdrew his support from Boris Johnson in the subsequent leadership contest, resulting in Theresa May’s appointment as Prime Minister.
There was also the decision to trigger Article 50 in March 2017, which some have suggested should have been delayed to the end of the negotiation process, to maximise leverage.
There was the 2017 General Election, when the Conservatives lost their majority in the House of Commons and Olly Robbins replaced Nick Timothy as the chief Brexit adviser to the Prime Minister.
The loss of momentum from the election also resulted in the government agreeing to a sequential approach to the negotiations, and the concession on the Irish backstop in December 2017 is at the heart of May’s current difficulties.
But there is another equally significant change which is cited less often. After dusting themselves off following their referendum defeat, Remain campaigners reorganised and began their push against a so-called “hard” Brexit and for a “people’s vote”, while business groups started making the case for a “soft” Brexit.
More recently, there have been new voices on the Leave side too – Leavers of Britain and StandUp4Brexit both deserve a mention. But the campaigning energy has undoubtedly shifted from Leave to Remain after the referendum.
It is too early to predict what sort of Brexit we will eventually get, but one lesson which anybody interested in policy change should take from this issue is the importance and power of campaigning.
When the People’s Vote march took place in London at the end of October, some suggested that these individuals shouldn’t be out campaigning, because the issue was settled in 2016.
Yet when I saw the images on TV, I may have strongly disagreed with their objective, but I admired them for spending their Saturday expressing their point of view.
So as I tuck into my Thanksgiving dinner tomorrow, as well as expressing my gratitude for family and friends, I will also say a quiet thank you for living in a country where we all have the freedom to campaign and the ability – if we choose to exercise it – to change the world.