Isabel Hardman

It’s not Tim Farron who is illiberal: it’s society

It's not Tim Farron who is illiberal: it's society
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Was Tim Farron's resignation as Liberal Democrat leader inevitable? He seems to suggest so, saying in his striking resignation statement that it felt 'impossible' to be a political leader and live as a committed Christian. 

He spent much of the election campaign stuck in a strange political special of the Moral Maze, endlessly cross-examined about his beliefs on issues such as gay sex and abortion. He argued that religious beliefs are not relevant in a political context, telling Sky during the campaign that 'the measure of a Liberal is someone who protects other people's rights, no matter what your personal position is'. Many in his party admired him for this. Others, such as Brian Paddick, who resigned yesterday from a position few were aware he held, clearly did not. 

But Farron himself was inconsistent in keeping his faith out of the public arena to such an extent that it is difficult to wonder whether his desire to make his beliefs irrelevant to a political interview was more motivated by a recognition that those beliefs are just too unpalatable for public life. 

He doesn't always find it uncomfortable to talk about what he believes to be the truth. In 2015, Mail on Sunday journalists thought it newsworthy that he remarked in an interview that Heaven and Hell really exist and that Heaven is a physical entity because 'it's what the Bible tells me'. Farron has not taken an entirely secular approach to his faith. He hasn't kept his beliefs totally private and separate from his identity as a politician, or at least he didn't before he was leader and they became more of a problem. 

Everyone makes moral judgements: on relationships, on abortion, and on the meaning of life. It isn't just evangelical Christians who have a moral framework for thinking about abortion: everyone does. It's just that some frameworks are formed in an organic way and some have names, such as conservative evangelical Christian. Everyone is somewhere on the spectrum between believing that even contraception that prevents ovulation is wrong and believing that abortion is the best form of contraception. The problem for Farron is that it is increasingly difficult to articulate a conservative view on terminations in the public realm. To do so is to face the moral judgement of others. It doesn't matter whether your personal conservative view isn't one you take with you into the House of Commons Chamber: it's enough that you hold it. 

Similarly, everyone has a worldview that means they make moral judgements on religions and other people's family set ups. It might be that those moral judgements are quite palatable to a majority of those around you: you're more likely to have an easy time if you say publicly that all religions are equal (which few really believe, as this would mean you believe that cults who practise child sacrifice deserve equal respect to the Roman Catholic Church) and that you think anything goes in relationships. The evangelical world that Farron hails from does not hold such popular beliefs. Farron and his advisers knew how biblical tenets would go down in an election campaign, and poured considerable effort into practising answers on issues that didn't come up, such as divorce. Whether or not he found it comfortable to ascribe to a traditional Biblical approach to relationships was irrelevant: it was enough that he had chosen to believe this was the truth. 

And this is why he was squeamish about some beliefs but not others. It is clearly OK to say Heaven exists but not to acknowledge what the Bible says about abortion or sex. Even if Farron believed it was perfectly possible to be a conservative Christian and an effective Liberal, he clearly didn't feel it was possible to express certain Christian beliefs in today's society. In other words, he suspected that our public debate isn't particularly liberal. 

And this is what the problem is. It's not that Tim Farron is illiberal: his voting record suggests otherwise. It's that he appeared to fear that the reaction to his own religious beliefs would be so illiberal as to damage his party, and therefore he needed to obfuscate on those beliefs when asked. The problem is that interviewers don't take kindly to obfuscation, and nor should they. Leaving gaps also allows people to fill in what your beliefs are using their own imagination. Skilled horror writers know that the imagination is more powerful than the pen, and often leave details out so that the reader can imagine their own worst version of the monster. This was the second strategic error that Farron made, after opening his faith up to scrutiny by talking about it when he chose. He wouldn't talk about his beliefs on homosexuality, and so allowed people to imagine those beliefs, often as a caricature of a bigoted Bible basher rather than anything kinder and more nuanced. Had he been honest, he would have attracted opprobrium. But obfuscating did that anyway — and made him look deeply uncomfortable. It also gave the impression that, as Farron said on his departure, that it is impossible to be a committed Christian at the frontline of politics. 

It is certainly extremely difficult. We live in a society of liberal intolerance, where only certain world views are deemed acceptable by people who often refuse to accept that they themselves have a worldview that also deserves interrogating. Such intolerance is often born of a sincere desire to make life better for those who have been persecuted in the past, including gay people, women who have abortions, and those who divorce. But it becomes a form of persecution in itself, just focused on a newly unpopular group. 

An election campaign would never have been the easiest time to take a principled stand against this liberal intolerance. But with every prominent figure who locks away the unpalatable parts of their worldview, society becomes a little less liberal. Which should worry far more people than those who support the party Farron now no longer leads. 

This article, which was originally posted in May, has been updated following Tim Farron's resignation

Written byIsabel Hardman

Isabel Hardman is assistant editor of The Spectator and author of Why We Get the Wrong Politicians. She also presents Radio 4’s Week in Westminster.

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