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The Fall of Farron Poses Deep Questions for our Democracy

by David Barclay

Posted: 19 Jun 2017

Politicians resign for a variety of reasons - electoral failure, party infighting, personal scandal - in the rough and tumble world of Westminster, resignation speeches are pretty run of the mill. Tim Farron's resignation, however, was a different affair altogether. When a major Party leader quits their job because they have found it impossible to reconcile their worldview with their role as a political leader it raises some pretty profound questions about the culture of our democracy, particularly when that worldview is one that's shared by a significant number of people in the UK and across the globe. 

The first question raised by the Farron affair is about the purpose of politicians. Farron was asked repeatedly whether he believed gay sex was sinful. One of the journalists who pursued this line of questioning, Sophie Ridge from Sky News, defended it by saying "Voters have a right to know what their political leaders believe in. Gay men have a right to know if politicians believe they are committing a sin when they make love, and women who have had abortions have a right to know whether politicians think they have done something wrong."

On first glance this might seem like a very sensible argument. We crave authenticity in our politicians, and transparency is at the heart of what makes democracy function effectively, so why would anything about a politician be off-limits to a journalist's probing? Farron himself seemed to concede this point in his resignation speech, saying "journalists have every right to ask what they see fit". But follow Ridge's argument a bit further and it all gets a bit more complicated. Do people who watch porn have the right to know whether politicians approve or disapprove of this? What about gamblers, or smokers, or people who put their parents in a nursing home rather than having them come and live with them? The thought of politicians being grilled about the rights and wrongs of all these activities is of course ridiculous. Politicians are not there to pronounce right and wrong over the actions of private citizens, but rather to advance public arguments about how we live together as a society, and particularly what shape our laws should take. Farron's fundamental mistake in this whole sorry story was to not nip the question in the bud when it was initially asked by saying "It is my passionate belief that gay people should be free to live their lives however they please without politicians telling them whether what they're doing is right or wrong." Instead his slightly cryptic response that "Christianity teaches that we're all sinners" only served to increase suspicion that he had strong views on this issue but was too afraid to share them. Farron may be right that journalists should be allowed to ask whatever they want, but politicians also have a right to refuse to answer a question that crosses the line from matters of genuine public interest and into prying of their private moral compass.

The second question that Farron's resignation poses to us all is whether we see politics as a battle or a conversation. Politics is, of course, very often a pretty brutal affair, with harsh words, strong alliances and decades or even centuries-old vengeances and enmities. Many of the political achievements we most cherish - the abolition of slavery, the ending of the death penalty, civil rights for women - we're achieved through painful and prolonged struggle. The same can of course be said for LGBT rights. So it's perhaps no surprise that for social liberals in particular, politics often is viewed entirely through the lens of battle, with the result that 'winning' looks like not just achieving particular policy goals but eliminating enemies from the battle field altogether. Much of the response to Farron's departure reflects this. Niamh Ni Mhaoileoin on the Left Foot Forward blog argued that "Although there is no reason to believe that he would legislatively oppose gay rights, LGBTQ people will inevitably have doubts about being represented by someone who privately believes their intimate relationships are sinful." Here we see the battle logic played out - it's not enough that Farron voted the right way, he had some suspicious private views and therefore he had to be got rid of. John Rentoul in the Independent was even more stark. He bemoaned the way that Farron in his resignation speech "sounded as if he were complaining that British society should have tolerated his unwillingness to tolerate gay sex". Luckily, "the UK is...putting such intolerance behind it", and so Farron had to go. Notice here how the definition of 'tolerance', that great watch word of liberalism, is stretched well beyond the traditional sense of allowing others to believe or behave in ways that one might not necessarily agree with. Of course in that sense Tim Farron absolutely tolerated gay sex, but for people like Rentoul that kind of tolerance is not in fact the goal at all, but rather whole hearted advocacy of social liberalism. If anyone falls foul of this bar they have no place in the front line of British political life.

In the 'politics as battle' mentality, Farron is a slightly confusing and sad relic of conservative and backward thinking which has to be purged from public discourse in the same way as racism or sexism must. But politics doesn't in fact always have to be viewed through the lens of battle. At its best politics can be a conversation between people who are deeply diverse and yet are committed to pursuing a common life together. In this framework a diversity of worldviews amongst senior politicians is not a problem to be solved but a gift to be recognised and encouraged. The tragedy of Tim Farron's departure is that he is not in fact the enemy of LGBT people. In fact he is an extremely valuable ally, because he is a rare and skillful bridge between the worlds of progressive politics and evangelical Christianity, groups which share a huge amount in common but often find it extremely difficult to work together due to exactly these contested moral issues. As I've argued on the topic of multiculturalism, when liberals insist on enacting strict 'progressive tests' for anyone they might do business with, they unwittingly undercut the diversity they claim to champion within society, making it harder for people from very different traditions and worldviews to find a meaningful sense of solidarity and common purpose.

So as Farron exits the stage of frontline British politics, it's worth pondering who is really to blame for his downfall. Was it Farron himself, for mishandling the questions he was asked or for ever thinking he could combine his beliefs with the leadership of the Liberal Democrats? Was it the journalists who posed him the tough questions, or his colleagues who seemed to be launching a coup just before news of his resignation broke? Or was it perhaps a deeper cultural problem in British democracy, which seems to be ever more intent on prying into the deepest thoughts of our public leaders and judging them against strict tests of social liberal orthodoxy? For anyone interested in the quality and depth of our public discourse these are questions that are well worth pondering, even if the answers might leave us more than a little uncomfortable.  

About this author

David Barclay is a partner at the Good Faith Partnership, a consultancy seeking to foster strategic relationships between business, politics, charity and faith; and an Associate of St Paul's Institute.


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The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of St Paul's Institute or St Paul's Cathedral.