Tim Farron was one of the odder casualties at the last general election, resigning more than a week after the dust settled amid allegations of backroom plotting and ongoing controversy about his Christian faith. This despite the Lib Dem leader actually gaining his party a few seats.
His defenestration marked a few things, perhaps most importantly the trouble many have with distinguishing between somebody’s personal beliefs and what they wish to enforce in law. Farron, if you recall, clearly had some problem with homosexuality, but had a decent record on voting for LGBT rights and clearly had no intention of going backwards on the matter.
Since he was chucked, Farron has become something of a martyr for religious types worried that their faith no longer fits into modern British life, or at least the modern British left. In this vein most recently, a speech from the Liberal Democrat has been clipped as a Guardian opinion piece.
Though the result is incoherent, there are some valid points. The evolution of liberalism is intertwined with that of Christianity, so much so that entire books have written on the subject. Those that forget that liberalism is as much a product of European cultural evolution as lawmaking make various policy errors, the most extreme being the attempt to drop liberal democracy from 10,000 feet in Iraq.
A desire to follow one’s own religious conscience spurred many of the great conflicts in Britain, and helped found the Thirteen Colonies that would eventually take liberalism and democracy in incredible directions. But it’s worth noting that many religious rebels were not opposed to oppression – they just disagreed with exactly who should be wearing the jackboot.
That some progressives – liberals, in Yank parlance – are doing much to erode the traditional foundations of liberalism is also indisputable, though there are better martyrs for this cause than Farron. For instance, Lindsay Shepherd, a teaching assistant at Wilfrid Laurier University in Canada, was interrogated this month by senior colleagues after she played a clip in class which challenged progressive thinking on gender pronouns.
However widespread, clearly there is a rot in universities in which activists seek to broaden the scope of prohibited speech. Jonathan Haidt, an academic specialising in political polarisation, has written about the problem of treating contentious ideas as intrinsically harmful at length, particularly for universities supposed to be in the business of studying truth rather than feelings.
Farron’s contention that liberalism ‘has gained ascendancy and lost itself in the process’ and ‘isn’t very liberal any more’ is slightly true, but ignores the fact that liberal democracy has always carried strains of illiberalism with it. Even while pursuing greater individualism and autonomy, Western states have variously tolerated slavery, persecuted minorities, and whipped up bouts of moral panic.
Even liberal societies are not immune to the moral currents of the time, and identity politics happens to be in vogue. Farron had the luck to be a white progressive Christian in a country where progs don’t care for white Christians, while holding backwards views on homosexuality. Had he been a non-white adherent to a non-white faith there’s a chance he’d have got away with it. Had he been a Tory he certainly would have.
In reality there are few absolute liberals, but most Britons subscribe to the ideology somewhat, with favoured caveats. While extreme progressives ban hate speech, bemoan democratic votes and fret over ‘microaggressions’, their rightwing counterparts shriek about migration, or Internet porn, or indeed most of what has happened since 1945.
If, as Farron says, Britain has no ‘shared values’, it is because no country has values that every citizen shares, but rather a messy melange of beliefs that might just cohere into an acceptable centre in which we can live, somewhat but not entirely free.
That there is a sharpness to political debate right now is probably due to the sharpness of political events. And while things might be especially fraught when compared to the last few decades, it doesn’t mean they are fraught by historical standards.
Whether liberalism has ‘won’ history is probably one for future historians. But its current success is far from ‘hollow’, in Farron’s phrase, with Britons largely enjoying greater freedoms and opportunities than our ancestors. Defending these achievements, including the religious freedom and freedom of speech that the former party chief enjoys, requires acknowledging that.
Image based on Tim Farron at Sandbach Town Hall, July 2016 by Jack Wilfred