The Spectator

Andrew Neil interviews Tim Farron: full transcript

Andrew Neil interviews Tim Farron: full transcript
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AN: Tim Farron, this election’s about electing MPs to sit in the British parliament, but you’re fighting on a manifesto which advocates UK laws being made in Brussels, having no control over immigration policy and for Britain to stay under the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. Why?

TF: The Liberal Democrats are campaigning in this campaign to trust the people, and we know that people voted to leave the European Union last June. I grew up with, you know, people who voted to leave. I completely respect those who did. Obviously a whole different view. The issue now is how do we move forward? And we know that a deal will be negotiated between Theresa May and those from Brussels and it’s that we’ll have to live with, our children will have to live with for generations. So it seems that the people should be sovereign. It should not be a deal stitched up by the politicians in Brussels and London. Instead it should be a deal that we agree with as a country, and that’s what we’re supporting. We think that the people should be trusted with the finer detail.

AN: But you don’t want to trust the British people. You still want UK laws to be made in Brussels, you still want no control over immigration policy, and you want the European Court to have jurisdiction in Britain. How is that trusting the British people?

TF: So we have a history as a Liberal movement, going back to the 1950s, of being the party that believes that Britain’s place is in Europe. Now, we respect the electorate and we respect the result of the referendum. That’s the direction in which our country is currently heading. But I think you’d be disappointed in us, or any politician who changed their principles. Much as I disagree with people like Bill Cash and Nigel Farage and so on, I do kind of respect them after the referendum in the 1970s for sticking to what they believe. As a country we can come together, but you also need somebody who’s prepared to say a different direction is possible. And in the end it kind of doesn’t matter whether you voted Leave or Remain last June, what the Liberal Democrats offer you is the chance to be sovereign, to have the final say on the final deal. It does matter, because of course Theresa May has made choices, and it was not inevitable that we would choose to be outside the single market, ripping up our free trade deal with Europe. That’s a choice she’s made. Jeremy Corbyn and UKIP of course backed her in that. We say that’s a choice, and if it’s choice that she’s making surely the British people should have the final say, not the politicians.

AN: You always speak about an extreme Brexit. What’s extreme about having control of our own borders?

TF: Well, I take the view that what our government is choosing is a direction that is – was not necessarily implicit in the referendum last year.

AN: But what’s extreme about having control of our own borders.

TF: Theresa May made a choice in June to – sorry, January – to take us out of the single market. That’s to rip out our free trade deal with Europe, where half of our goods are exported to and which massively impacts upon our ...

AN: But hasn’t ripped it up, she wants a different free trade arrangement.

TF: She’s basically not bid to remain in the free trade deal that we have.

AN: As you know, the single market is more than a free trade deal. The single market involves free movement of people, it involves jurisdiction by the European Court of Justice, and a common rule book. If we agree to all that in what way would we have left the European Union?

TF: You’re absolutely dead right to say that it’s more than just a free trade deal, it’s more than just the absence of tariffs. It’s all the non-tariff obstructions as well. Let me just tell you why this really matters.

AN: Well, I want you to tell me why if we agreed to all that we would still in effect have left the European Union?

TF: Andrew, you just asked me about what other than a free trade deal we’re talking about here. Let’s remember why those non-tariff and indeed tariff barriers really matter to our businesses. So let’s go back to 2001.

AN: That’s not what I’m asking you. I’m asking you – this is an important question and I’d like you to address my question. Which is that if we remain members of the single market we’d be subject to the European Court, we would need to agree to free movement of people. We would have no control over our borders. So therefore in what way -

TF: You’re making lots of assumptions here.

AN: In what way would we have left the European Union.

TF: Let me answer that question, then I’ll go back to your first one.

AN: Well, that was my first one.

TF: And the thing is this: so, we are currently in the situation negotiating our exit and a new deal. Absolutely essential that we have a new deal going forward with Europe to protect jobs, to keep prices down at the supermarket, to protect the future for our children. Now, if Theresa May has the courage of her convictions and is going to fight for a strong deal in Europe, what you don’t do at the beginning is accept that you can’t get the best deal. And the best deal is surely one that leaves us with that free trade deal and leaves us in the single market.

AN: Shall I give you one more chance to answer the question, which is that if we remain under the European Court’s jurisdiction, if we are subject to free movement of peoples, if we’re subject to laws and regulations made in Brussels in what way will we have left the European Union?

TF: Well, for example, over the last 20 years Nigel Farage and others have toured the country telling us let’s be more like Norway. A Norway in the single market, out of the European Union. All I’m saying to you –

AN: Norway’s subject to free movement. It’s subject in effect to the European Court.

TF: All I’m saying to you is that different options are available. And the Prime Minister has made that extreme choice. And here’s why it does matter – I want to just get to this point because you asked me why this matters. Let’s go back to 2001, during another general election. During the foot and mouth crisis. Now you will remember that the French could not exclude British exports of beef and lamb to France quickly enough, because they had the excuse of that disease. They will not wait a second to bring in similar tariffs and barriers if we’re outside the single market. And that is why, accepting even if we leave the European Union, fighting for Britain’s place in our free trade deal that backs British jobs and keeps prices low is fundamental. If you’re a patriot and you’re fighting Britain’s corner in Europe you don’t, as sadly Theresa May has done, give up on the most important aspect of those negotiations.

AN: Alright. And I’m going to give up on trying to get an answer to my question. You also describe yourself, and this I think you kind of want it both ways here, as a bit of a Eurosceptic. Can you think of any other Eurosceptics who would launch their manifesto standing on an EU flag?

TF: When you talked about how you stand against or alongside those institutions, a local council, the government, an assembly or indeed Europe, you should be, as a Liberal, always prepared to be critical of those who hold power.

AN: That’s not what Euroscepticism means.

TF: Well, it’s important –

AN: You are no Eurosceptic Mr Farron, are you? It’s not honest to say that to the British people.

TF: I’m passionate about the European ideal. I’m often critical of things the Commission does, just as I’m critical of things the British government does.

AN: You also describe yourself in one of your leaflets and Remoaner of the Year. So you’re a Eurosceptic Remoaner. How does that work out?

TF: Well, if people cast insults at you it’s quite good to own them if you possibly can. I’m sure you do it from time to time.

AN: You’re just trying to have it both ways aren’t you?

TF: But you made an interesting point there about the use of terminology. You see, I do respect the outcome of the referendum and I, nevertheless, feel a sense of real concern that in this country if you stand by your principles, if you question whether Theresa May is making the right choices, and Jeremy Corbyn of course backed her in that, then you are dismissed as a saboteur or a Remoaner. No, I accept the result and I accept –

AN: That’s the fourth time you’ve said that. I would suggest that you don’t accept the result. You are fighting tooth and nail to undo the result aren’t you? You don’t accept the result.

TF: I want to give the British people the final say. Andrew, let me make this point: and that is there’s something chilling about a democracy if people who think differently to the government are somehow silenced. I think it’s right that that positive vision of Britain working across this continent that we are part of should be put forward. In the same way –

AN: Nobody wants to silence you Mr Farron, what we’re trying to do is get some more honesty. Now, if we have this second referendum you would campaign for us to come back in.

TF: There can be nothing more honest than leading a party supporting Britain’s place in Europe, and we have since 1955.

AN: In a second referendum you would campaign to overturn the decision we took last year, wouldn’t you?

TF: So we had a referendum last year –

AN: No, I know that.

TF: Well, let’s talk about what another referendum would be.

AN: No, just tell us, you would campaign for us to remain in.

TF: Let me finish. You asked a really good question that deserves an answer. So here we go. And the answer is simply this: we are going to have a deal negotiated between Brussels and our government over the next, let’s say, 12 to 18 months. We will drop out of the European Union on the 1st April 2019. Now, it seems to me that having voted democratically for departure last June the British people should have the final say on destination. And we -

AN: And you would tell them to vote to remain.

TF: If you’re going to let me finish my question...

AN: I haven’t seen the point.

TF: So here’s the point. And it is this: that we have the right surely as the British people, to have the final say. If you bought a house –

AN: Mr Farron, I’m not arguing with this. Let me just get to the point you make, because frankly you sound to me like you’re filibustering. And I want to address this simple point –

TF: You’re doing more talking than I am.

AN: Well, I’m trying to get you to answer the question, it’s simple Mr Farron. Let me try to put it again. In this second referendum will you campaign to remain in the European Union?

TF: I’m politely answering it. And it is this: that when the deal is put to the British people the British people have the fight to either accept that deal, and in that case we leave the European Union on the 1st April 2019, or to reject it and remain. Now, I’ll be very clear with you as I have been over the last 12 months. I cannot see any chance of us getting a better deal than the one we have now.

AN: So you would tell them to reject any deal?

TF: In a democracy it’s right to stand by your principles isn’t it?

AN: So can you just answer my question? In any referendum campaign –

TF: I’ve just done, two or three times.

AN: - you will campaign to reject any deal, correct?

TF: Let’s look at the deal. I don’t imagine any of us can imagine a deal that is better than the one we’ve got now.

AN: So you’d campaign to remain?

TF: The deal we’ve got now, is membership of the European Union, the deal we have now is membership most fundamentally of the single market, and then we have the op-outs. We have the fact that we have the rebate, we have exemption from Schengen. We don’t have open borders.

AN: We know all that, Mr Farron. Let me just finally try and get some clarity on this, because as you know, there’s nothing worse than politicians not answering questions. So can you just be clear – no, you can’t keep on talking over me. How this works is I ask questions and you try to answer them. So let me – you’re doing it again, Mr Farron.

(talking together)

AN: Mr Farron, you’re not in last night’s debate, when you’re in a one on one Mr Farron – please be quiet and listen to my question. My question is quite simple. Will you campaign –

TF: If you keep talking I can’t answer.

AN: Mr Farron, you’re not answering. Let me try one more time. Mr Farron, let me try one more time. You’re not going to heckle me out of this. I will ask my questions – I will ask you my questions. In the second referendum you will campaign – you’re doing it again. You will campaign to reject any deal that Mrs May does?

TF: I will campaign in that referendum on the basis of what’s best for Britain. My view is I cannot see how Theresa May will be able to get a deal better than the one we currently have. Which I told you about five minutes ago.

AN: Let’s move on to your manifesto and see if we can do better there with clarity. Last week’s terrorist atrocity in Manchester underlined the unprecedented threat facing this country. Why then do you want, in your words, to, quote, ‘roll back the surveillance powers of the security services’?

TF: Well, the security services keep us all safe, and as somebody who was in Manchester the Tuesday night after the bomb, somebody who has four kids all of whom have friends who were either at or close to the gig that night, it brings home how much the police and security services do to keep us safe. One thing that’s really critical is this: the police seek to keep us safe, what they need are resources. Now, the security services have powers. So for example, we have exclusion orders. And we’ve had those since the coalition days, the Liberal Democrats were fundamental in making sure that we have those, and the government’s used them once in two years. What I fear for the security services is that they have the powers that they need, but what they need are the resources to make use of them.

AN: But you want to take powers away.

TF: And so what we need to make sure is that we don’t have knee jerk responses to the kind of outrage that we had last Monday.

AN: But you want to take powers away.

TF: Well do I want –

AN: Why?

TF: Do I want to protect the privacy of individuals? Yes, of course. When you see terrorists seeking to undermine our freedoms, our liberty, our very way of life, it is very important that we don’t allow politicians the easy answer of knee jerk responses that give away those liberties and freedoms.

AN: But you want further to tie the hands of the security services. You’re against restricting encryption.

TF: That’s not true. That’s not true.

AN: Well you’re against restricting encryption.

TF: So we know that encryption –

AN: Aren’t you?

TF: - keeps people’s bank accounts, details and privacy safe and it’s about making sure that we are smart in catching the terrorist. And it’s been the basic things like, you know, don’t you, ‘cause you read it yourself, in the last few days it’s emerged that the murderer of those 22 innocent people in Manchester last Monday was reported, flagged up, not once but five times from the community that he came from. And that tells you that we’ve got potentially ample powers, not ample resources in order to pursue those who seek to do us harm.

AN: But you want to restrict the ability of the security services to deal with these encrypted apps which is what the terrorists use.

TF: So we want to not –

AN: Don’t you?

TF: - we don’t want to allow our politicians to go off down a rabbit hole to do things that won’t keep us safe.

AN: This is not the politicians, this is the security services want to access these apps.

TF: The security services are very clear what they want is the resources to be able to catch those people. For example, at the moment we have a European database that by the way Theresa May is planning to take us out of, that has 16 notifications every second of every minute of every hour of every day. There is lots of intelligence out there. What there isn’t, or there aren’t, are the people to do the job of sifting it and following it up.

AN: The security services want to be able to break those encryptions.

TF: And it will be wrong – and they

AN: And you don’t want to give them the power.

TF: And the security services certainly think it’s wrong to take us out of that European database.

AN: That’s another issue. I mean I ask you a question and you answer a different one.

TF: No, I don’t think that’s true. I think the fact is that those people who murdered 22 innocent people and injured so many more and caused such fear and panic, those people they do it for a reason. It’s ‘cause they hate us. But they hate our neighbours as well and the thing to do is to stand together -

AN: I understand all that. I’m trying to find out what your security policy is.

TF: Well we’re start with £300 million extra for our police services.

AN: Well let me give you another one. You want to be able to notify –

TF: We’ll start with making sure that we keep within that European database.

AN: - innocent people. Well hold on I want to ask you a question.

TF: Well I was answering the previous one.

AN: Well actually you weren’t, but the viewers will make up their mind.

TF: Actually I was. They will.

AN: You want to notify innocent people who have been placed under targeted surveillance. How would that work?

TF: So without a doubt what we need to do is to take advantage of the fact that intelligence services have the ability under law now to bug people’s phones. To keep people under surveillance. You don’t tell them whilst you’re doing it. You let them know once an investigation is completed if they’ve been proven innocent. That’s standard.

AN: But you said you want to notify innocent people who’ve been placed under targeted surveillance.

TF: Just explained it to you.

AN: Why would you do that?

TF: Once somebody – once someone’s been declared and found innocent you let them know. That is standard.

AN: Alex Carlile who –

TF: I can’t think of any person who would think that is wrong.

AN: Alex Carlile who was the independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, independent reviewer, former Lib Dem, he says the idea’s potty.

NF: So it seems to me very standard that you have the powers and give the resources to people to hack phones, to concentrate on trailing people, on tracking their movements. If a person has been discovered innocent it seems pretty right, pretty British to tell people afterwards.

TF: All right. Let me move on to tuition fees, a subject which has not been a great one for your party. You still seem to be suffering from the promise to scrap university tuition fees, then agreeing to treble them when you were in government. You voted against that increase. But your Manifesto now doesn’t mention getting rid of them. Why not?

TF: Well it’s important to have priorities and you rightly said I voted against the rise in tuition fees, I always thought Andrew, that was an issue of trust far more than it was about fees. So we’re looking at –

AN: But you wouldn’t get rid of them now?

TF: - we’re looking at the university situation as we find it now. So somebody like me who went to university from a working class background, what was the thing that made the difference for me? And it was a maintenance grant.

AN: Not the fees?

TF: That was what allowed me to basically be able to go home or go away from home, to be able to pay for my rent, feed myself and not be a massive burden on my mum who frankly didn’t have the largest income or my father. Now then, what we’re looking at now is dealing with that issue again. So our priority when it comes to higher education maintenance is to focus on providing people with a grant. Now, if there was, you know, untold amounts of money out there, maybe you’d do things differently. We’ve chosen priorities I think are right for us. Now I think the biggest challenge that is unwritten about yet and it’s because it’s about to happen, is what happens in education slightly further down the years. So as we sit now, it’s half term most places, it certainly is for my kids, we are therefore seven weeks off the end of term and two out of three head teachers in our country are preparing to sack at least one teacher for budgetary reasons. So Theresa May is about to do to our schools what she’s already done to our hospitals and so we –

AN: But I’m asking about university tuition fees.

TF: Well I’ve told you what we’d do about university maintenance, but the point I’m making, Andrew –

AN: So when you said in 2010 – let’s stick to tuition fees.

TF: but what’s our priority for spending education and it is to stop Theresa May slashing school funding and sacking teachers.

AN: But you said in 2010 that education should be available to all, not just those who can stomach the debt. As you look back now that was wrong, that maintenance grants are more important than tuition fees.

TF: Well you have to make judgements, don’t you?

AN: So you were wrong?

TF: - and I - you look at where we’ve got now and what money is available to government at the moment and what we’ve done in what is a fully costed and balanced manifesto, we’ve chosen what our priorities are. And I think if you look at what is off-putting to people who come from the kind of background that I did, it is the fact that you incur –

AN: It’s the maintenance grant.

TF: - personal debt during your time at university.

AN: So you were wrong.

TF: Now in an ideal world then there will be no charge at all, but it’s right you make wise choices that you can deliver on, that you don’t, let’s be blunt, make promises that you can’t keep.

AN: You say that workers are now suffering a real fall in living standards, particularly with the recent rise in inflation. So why do you want to make their living standards even worse by increasing their income tax?

TF: Well, we’ve been very, very clear if you look out there our National Health Service in our country, we saw in Manchester, didn’t we, the incredible dedication, professionalism and care of people who work in our health service? I know this as a father of people whose hospitals –

AN: But we’re all agreed with that Mr Farron ‘cause we all have huge admiration. What’s the answer to my question?

TF: - in which case – and what happens next of course is you get motherhood and apple pie from politicians who say they can solve the NHS and social care problem. And so what the Liberal Democrats have done is be honest and direct. If you want the best funded and the best National Health Service and social care system in the world, we’ll have to pay for it. And so we have offered the British people, we will give our country, you and your family the best NHS and care system in the world. A little cost to pay on income and it will raise 30 billion over five years.

AN: Even if it means raising the taxes, even if it means raising the taxes of those whose living standards you have said are already in decline.

TF: So it’s the price of a cup of coffee a week for most people. And if you look at it in a bit more detail – and I think having the best NHS and care system in the world is worth the price of a cup of coffee a week. If you look at it in more detail the Resolution Foundations shows that 95% of the costs will be paid by the 50% at highest earners in our country, but I believe in the welfare state. We’re all, to coin a phrase, in it together. We all contribute to it, we all gain from it.

AN: Even those people whose living standards are falling?

TF: But as I say, the average amount we’d be paying per week is the price of a cup of coffee.

AN: Let me move on.

TF: If you want the best NHS and social care in the world that’s what we should have. I’ll just make this point –

AN: Okay you said – no, I need to move on. I have another issue.

TF: I know you do.

AN: Well make it quickly. Remember this is an interview, not a party political broadcast.

TF: I get that.

AN: Well I’m not sure you do, Mr Farron.

TF: I’m dealing with at the moment my father’s – my grandfather’s, sorry –

AN: No, we haven’t got time for –

TF: My grandfather’s passage into Alzheimer’s and at the moment we’re seeing wonderful people care for him who can earn more stacking shelves in a supermarket. And that is why we need to invest more in social care.

AN: All right and I’m going to move on now.

TF: - and that’s the penny income tax –

AN: No, no you’ve said enough, Mr Farron, I insist we move on.

TF: - it’s honest and it is ambitious.

AN: I’m sorry, I insist we move on.

TF: I accept your insistence.

AN: The Royal College of Psychiatry says that the regular use of cannabis doubles, doubles the risk of developing a psychotic episode or long term schizophrenia, but you want to legalise it.

TF: Well look, here I am as the leader of a party that has looked at the evidence. And I think we will agree –

AN: So has the Royal College –

TF: - all agree with, the Royal College of Psychiatrists and all the other people out there, the senior police officers and others who will all agree the current system doesn’t work. So what the Liberal Democrats did two years ago was appoint an expert panel, including current serving Chief Constables, pharmacologists and others. So what’s the –

AN: But the Royal College is not expert enough for you?

TF: Of course and their expertise is part of what we looked at. So what we’ve got to aim to do – so I’m someone who thinks drugs do enormous harm in society. Alcohol included, but illegal drugs for certain.

AN: Including cannabis?

TF: - so what do we do – yeah, sure. So what do we do is we ensure, or we do our best to ensure on the basis of the evidence that you minimise harm to those who are vulnerable and you maximise harm to those criminal gangs who take advantage of it. Now it’s very easy for politicians to just cave in. You know you ask difficult questions like this which you’re absolutely right to ask, and so politicians will ignore what you really could do to minimise harm and maximise harm to those who are the criminals and you ignore that. We chose instead to be rational and look at the evidence. And the evidence suggests that if you regulate the market then you can make sure that you protect people. First and foremost you prevent the passage that the evidence suggests around the world from people using softer drugs, shall we say, onto harder drugs. ‘Cause you build a wall if you like.

AN: Except that on these so called soft drugs they double the risk of a psychotic episode or long term – well schizophrenia. Do you think parents watching tonight will be happy if cannabis was legalised and their kids took it?

TF: I’m a parent. I don’t want my kids to take it, but I also –

AN: But you want to legalise it.

TF: - want to make sure we deal with a serious problem in an intelligent way. So out there on the streets the evidence suggests that it is the availability of skunk, a very strong strain of cannabis that does potentially have a link to psychosis, that is being sold. If you regulate it you can control it. I wouldn’t propose to do something controversial like this if the evidence didn’t suggest that all of our children would be more safe than they currently are and the criminal gangs under more threat then they currently are. Let’s follow the evidence.

AN: All right, let’s – well I did quote the Royal College evidence –

TF: Yeah and we accept that, that’s part of our study.

AN: You’ve ruled out any kind of coalition after the election. Why?

TF: I think as a - I’ve been an active Liberal since I was 16 and been through many elections. It seems to me one of the things that stops you getting your message across is the thought that if you vote for the Liberal Democrats it’s a proxy for X or for Y. Now at the moment the biggest issue of the day - and never mind the European Union – it’s actually whether we’re in the single market. It’s our commitment to a free trade deal. Now the Liberal Democrats and the Liberal movement and we’ve been characterised by nothing else this last couple of centuries is an absolutely passionate commitment to trade. Not just for economic reasons, ‘cause it’s good for jobs and keeping prices down, it’s also good for peace. Keeping countries together.

AN: So that’s why you don’t want to go into a coalition?

TF: So let me just finish the point. You have Jeremy Corbyn with Labour backing Theresa May and of course UKIP’s position on exiting that free trade –

AN: They both want a free trade deal with Europe?

TF: No they’ve just voted to tear up the one we’ve got.

AN: No, no, they both want a free trade deal.

TF: Well you’re very credulous if you believe that’s what you’re going to get and if you think that’s what they really want.

AN: Anyway that’s the reason you don’t want to go into a coalition?

TF: So we are not in a position, I don’t think, where we could potentially go into coalition with another party, led by Theresa May or Jeremy Corbyn which wants to take Britain out of that free trade deal to damage all of our children’s

AN: So your Manifesto doesn’t matter, does it? Your Manifesto’s irrelevant.

TF: No.

AN: if you’re not going to work with other parties, go into a coalition, your manifesto is irrelevant.

TF: We’ve achieved a vast amount from opposition.

AN: Everything we’ve gone through has just been a waste of time?

TF: You can achieve a vast amount from opposition. So what’s happening at the moment is that we are in the final days of a General Election –

AN: Really?

TF: - called by Theresa May so that she can get a landslide. That was her assumption, that’s why she called the General Election. And here’s the thing. Every vote the Liberal Democrats get, and this is – I want people out there – I’m going to say something I think is significant now – and it is this. I just want to flag this up because there are –

AN: I’ve got a few more questions and we’re running out of time.

TF: There are Labour and Conservative voters out there, particularly in those tranches of the country where the Liberal Democrats are challenging –

AN: Get to your point please.

TF; - the Conservatives and in those places I want you to lend me your vote and I’ll tell you why. Because that is the way we can prevent the dementia tax.

AN: But they’re not, are they? I mean you set out with high hopes.

TF: Theresa May look let me finish the point.

AN: No, you’ve had enough on that point actually. I want to know why your campaign has gone so badly.

TF: You asked me –

AN: Why has the campaign gone so badly?

TF: You asked me why –

AN: And I’m asking you now. Why has the campaign gone - in the final seconds do me one favour and finally answer my final question. Why has your campaign gone so badly?

TF: As every good student will tell you the best thing to do is to challenge the assumption in the question. Liberal Democrats are doing extremely well and here is a reason why we will and why we should.

AN: But you’re a populist who’s not popular, Mr Farron. That’s why your campaign’s gone badly.

TF: Worse sound bites than Paul Nuttall but let me keep going. Here’s the big offer. Here’s the big offer.

AN: I’m sorry.

TF: People out there –

AN: We have run out of time for your big offer Mr Farron.

TF: Lend me your vote and we’ll stop the dementia tax.

AN: You spoke yourself out. Mr Farron, thank you very much.

TF: Thank you.