Tim Farron didn’t serve in government under the coalition, and had spiky relations with his colleagues who did. It became clear as the parliament went on that he was angling for the leadership, having prudently voted against tuition fees and the spare room subsidy. His ambitions didn’t go down well with Vince Cable, who dismissed them two years ago, saying that Farron “would not be seen as a very credible leader, at least now. Maybe in five, 10 years time, things are different.” Miaouw!
Now Cable is back in the Commons, together with other former Liberal Democrat Ministers, and Farron’s position was threatened. He had gambled on seeking to mobilise last June’s Remain 48 per cent behind his party, and had met some success in local by-elections, but at least half of them had moved on, and Jeremy Corbyn’s pitch to younger voters turned out to catch their mood more effectively than Farron’s. Yesterday, Brian Paddick, the party’s Home Affairs spokesman, resigned from the party’s front bench, citing his leader’s “views on various issues”. No guessing what these might have been.
So it rather looks as though Farron jumped before he was pushed, with his quote from Isaac Watt in hand, but this is not to say that his decision was somehow insincere. Far from it. This site has no window with which to see into his soul, but it is clear from his resignation statement that the media pursuit over his views on gay sex and abortion has wounded him. It may also be that, amidst the hazardous business of trying to balance his beliefs with his responsibilities, he feels somehow that he erred too much on the side of the latter.
Be that as it may, his resignation statement was remarkable. “To be a political leader – especially of a progressive, liberal party in 2017 – and to live as a committed Christian, to hold faithfully to the Bible’s teaching, has felt impossible for me.” That sideswipe at his party was extraordinary. It can be read as meaning that orthodox Christian belief and the Liberal Democrat worldview are currently incompatible. Not all Christians will share Farron’s views – or perhaps what were once his views – on abortion and gay sex. Liberal Anglicans, for example, would have no intrinsic problem with the second. But churchgoers and others should ponder what he said.
Farron yesterday put his finger on a problem that this site identified when he was first quizzed about his beliefs. Social conservatism, for want of a better phrase, is not only unfashionable amongst the elites that shape our public culture, but is increasingly treated by them as somehow illegitimate. That the DUP is currently under fire for its stance on abortion and gay sex is a reminder of this (even though the SDLP takes much the same position on the first). That Farron is an evangelical Christian leading a party with a strongly secular ethos was always going to make him a target for media smart alecs and alices. They have pursued him relentlessly.
What the Liberal Democrats think and say is their own business, but there is a lesson here for the Conservative Party. Obviously, it should not take a collective view on matters of conscience, but it should hold that private beliefs are just those, and that the role of Christianity in public life is important. In her first Commons speech of the new Parliament, the Prime Minister welcome the presence in it of black and minority ethnic MPs, the first-ever Sikh MP, more disabled MPs and more LGBT MPs. That balance was right. But it is important that a positive message from her and the Party to the churches does not get confined to Christmas and Easter messages.
Farron’s words were a wider challenge. It would be wrong to claim that Christians are always the victims of Equality Laws. But the fact is that politicians set out in them a list of protected characteristics, of which religion is one, and passed the buck to the courts in deciding which have priority when. MPs should decide rather than quit the field. Last, a blunt point: if the churches can’t persuade younger people, in particular, of their view about sexual ethics, then that is the churches’ problem. Politicians should do their job, but not that of the clergy. The church’s future lies in its own hands, not that of the state, even if England puts the first in the hands of the second.
“Imagine how proud I am to lead this party,” Farron said yesterday. “And then imagine what would lead me to voluntarily relinquish that honour. In the words of Isaac Watts, it would have to be something ‘so amazing, so divine, (it) demands my heart, my life, my all’. That closing passage will be a bit unctuous for the taste of some of our readers. Taking its cue from Alastair Campbell, our culture doesn’t do God. But this site must confess that it found Farron’s peroration rather moving.