November 29, 2017

I hold the minority opinion that we are witnessing one of the golden ages of Parliament. Precisely because of the ferment of our politics, across the House of Commons big ideas are being touted – the radical leftism of Labour, the search for new ideas from some parts of the Tory backbenches and the case for sovereignty from others. And last night, a slight, chirpy, failed former leader of a tiny party gave the bravest speech I’ve ever heard from an MP.

Tim Farron’s annual Theos lecture was delivered too fast, rambled rather, and had too many football jokes and pop references for my taste. But it rewards a careful read. Mr Farron’s argument, inspired by the 90s indie band Pop Will Eat Itself, is that

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‘Liberalism has eaten itself because it has eaten the very world view that gave birth to it, that made it possible.  It’s a bit like Michael J Fox in Back to the Future, erasing himself by accidentally preventing his parents getting together.’

Liberalism’s parents, says Mr Farron, are the doctrines of Christianity. The absolute value, and the total freedom, which God gives each person are the sources of the creed. And he neatly explains both how liberalism depends on Christianity, and how both lost their way – ate themselves – when they acquired political power:

“In the 4th century, in Rome, Christianity won, in that it became the establishment world view. Up to that point there had been three hundred years of persecution and exclusion for the followers of Jesus Christ…

But the church morphed from persecuted to dominant in a short time, and in doing so it lost sight of its own internal truth of reliance on Christ alone and self–sacrificing love.  The state with which that church merged began to oppress different minorities, to show the same intolerance and violence towards other groups that Christians had endured for so many years.

Liberalism faces the same fate today… My experience is that although liberalism has won, it is now behaving like the established church of the empire in 4th and 5th centuries.  It has gained ascendancy and lost itself in the process. It isn’t very liberal any more.”  

The most powerful part of the speech is Mr Farron’s simple assertion that, post Christianity, “we don’t really have shared values. There is no unifying set of British values. It’s a myth.” Secularism, he says, “is a totalising creed that reduces everyone down to either consumer or regulatory units.” It cannot unite us; it has no claim to bring us together. The enforcement of political correctness, the Orwellian denigration of alternative – namely traditional – views, represent not unity but disarray.

Liberalism’s parents, says Mr Farron, are the doctrines of Christianity. The absolute value, and the total freedom, which God gives each person are the sources of the creed.

As this suggests, Mr Farron is a deeply conservative Christian. Yet he is clearly happier as a political outsider, just as he chooses a nonconformist (Baptist) church. He opposes establishment, whether of Anglicanism or atheism; there should be no required belief system for participation in civic life, no ‘tyranny of opinion’, in John Stuart Mill’s words.

Like Mill, Mr Farron seems to disregard the value of institutions and accustomed habits of thought to a properly free society. Edmund Burke, whom he misquotes to the effect that enforced religious conversation doesn’t work, also said that people cannot be expected to discern truth with their own naked reason. We need the wisdom of ages as well as individual conscience.

I am also perplexed how Mr Farron can sing the hymn of freedom while supporting big government and the European Union, as he does. But these are quibbles. He is – Mill’s highest accolade – an eccentric, in the Victorian sense: not ridiculous, but a dissenter and a pioneer, and a very brave man. This speech will not be enough to turn the tide of faith, which is already far out and retreating still. But I think last night might have been an important moment in the battle which is upon us. The tyranny of opinion has a slight, chirpy and formidable foe.