Tim Farron wasn't forced out by an intolerant elite—but by the voters

It is perfectly possible to privately hold conservative views in politics. Just maybe not if you're the leader of the Liberal Democrats

June 15, 2017
Farron's resignation has sparked suggestions that religious belief is incompatible with politics. Photo: PA
Farron's resignation has sparked suggestions that religious belief is incompatible with politics. Photo: PA

What role did the Devil play in Tim Farron’s resignation? God’s views have been widely canvassed, but the devil plays a greater part in politics. Evangelical Christians have no trouble answering the question: the evil, for them, was that a good man was hounded by the liberal elite for his views. The fundamentalist campaigner Andrea Williams claimed Farron’s resignation was the start of a process that could end with her views being criminalised in Britain. Even the shrewd and level-headed thinktanker Nick Spencer said that “Tim Farron’s conviction that the Christian faith is no longer compatible with leading a liberal party is both an indictment of, and warning to, our public life today.”

In this, he may be taking Tim Farron’s account of his difficulties too much at face value. As a matter of principle, it is clearly wrong that a politician should be disqualified from office over their private reservations about party policy. Going along with policies that you personally disagree with out of loyalty to the larger collective is one of the cornerstones of grown-up politics. It holds together everything that lies somewhere on the spectrum between Ayn Rand and the People’s Popular Front for the Liberation of Judaea.

This is easy to see when we share their reservations: do we really want all the Brexiteers in government to resign and hand over their jobs to people like Daniel Hannan? More relevantly, I remember the persecution of Rowan Williams by conservative evangelicals (prominent among them Williams) when he was Archbishop of Canterbury.

Rowan’s position was the mirror image of Tim Farron’s: he believed, and was well known to believe, in the equality of gay people. Yet he felt it his duty to go along with the Church’s homophobic official policy while reserving the right to argue in private against it. This was completely unacceptable to the conservative evangelicals, who wanted to establish the principle that anyone who believed gay sex was not sinful should not hold any office in the church—whether or not they were themselves celibate.

This seemed to me entirely monstrous bullying. It was right then, and is right now, to defend Tim Farron’s duty to hold the convictions that he honestly does and even where appropriate to argue them in private.

But the devil has no interest in principles. His place, as is well known, is down among the details, and when we look at the specifics of this case things get more complicated. For a start, not too many people believe that Farron’s private views disqualify him from office: ComRes polling on this finds that only around 20 per cent of Lib Dem voters think that privately believing gay sex is sinful disqualifies a politician from office if they do nothing to act on their conviction. About the same proportion of Conservatives and even UKIP voters agree. The figure rises to around 30 per cent for Labour and SNP voters—only among the Greens is there a plurality (48 per cent) for the intolerant view.

Yet that 10 per cent gap between Lib Dem and Labour views is a very awkward one for a Lib Dem leader specifically. In this election, Farron was competing for the young and well-educated vote and it is exactly in those sectors that opinion was least favourable to him. Young people were much more likely even than the generality of Labour voters to regard Tim Farron’s privately-held beliefs as disqualification from office. Not for nothing did Labour put his conservative views on their election literature in Cambridge, where there was a huge swing from Lib to Lab.

Obviously, you can’t blame Labour for using effective propaganda. In the long arc of history, this treatment of Farron is the payback for Simon Hughes’ campaign against Peter Tatchell in Bermondsey. If there was a marginal advantage to be gained from attacking him, of course they were going to do so.

This suggests that it’s impossible to be an evangelical Christian of Farron’s sort and an effective leader of the Liberal Democrats. It doesn’t mean that all people of those views are being driven out of politics. It probably doesn’t even mean that they are being driven out of the Lib Dems. It just means that if you are a party leader who sincerely holds unpopular views on a matter that your swing voters think is morally salient, you will pay for it.

But even that might pass—look at the career of Jeremy Corbyn, whose views after 30 years are right back in fashion. Surely Farron can spend that many years in the wilderness, if he has enough faith. After all, Moses spent forty.