Democracy requires broad coalitions of interests among people who differby Julian Baggini / April 28, 2017 / Leave a comment
“I don’t believe that gay sex is a sin.” It took a long time for Tim Farron to say it, long enough for discussion about whether the seeming private illiberality of the Liberal leader was a disgrace or completely irrelevant. The discussion was often heated. Tory Tim Montgomerie decried the “totalitarian” demand for “politicians to reveal inner thoughts and beliefs” while Labour MP Liz Kendall called his initial refusal to say gay sex wasn’t sinful offensive.
The key issue here is not, as Montgomerie claimed, whether or not politicians are entitled to their private views. Rather it is, as one writer put it, whether “this evasiveness may cause potential voters to question whether Farron’s conscience would allow him to whip his party in favour of LGBT-friendly legislation in future votes.”
As soon as the question is asked, the answer becomes obvious. Farron’s record suggests very strongly that however conservative his divine morality, his secular politics is (almost) impeccably liberal. Although he has not always voted in line with majority LGBT-rights opinion, he has expressed regret for some past choices which no one could claim were actually homophobic nor defended with anti-gay rights arguments. It is striking that Pink News pointed this out more strongly than other news sources, noting how Farron led “calls against the persecution of gay people in Chechnya,” helped “secure the safety of a transgender woman who has been sent to a man’s prison” and criticised “the blanket ban on blood donation by men who have sex with men.”
Suspicion of Farron’s equal rights credentials reflects a wider misunderstanding of the very nature of politics and its relationship to morality. Secular, pluralist democracy rests on the assumption that members of society have different, often very divergent conceptions of morality and the good life. It negotiates these differences by distinguishing between public and private space, allowing individuals to live according to their own consciences as far as that is compatible with allowing others to live according to theirs.
To be a liberal in such a polis is to be firmly committed to this principle of individual liberty of conscience. It doesn’t require actually having a liberal personal morality. A political liberal can be a moral conservative. What matters is not whether Farron believes that gays will burn in…