The word ‘liberal’ means different things to different people in different places. In the USA it means ‘left-wing’ and is synonymous with the country’s coasts. In Britain and most of Western Europe it has come to mean somebody who is ‘nice’ or ‘tolerant’. But the problems of defining liberalism are not created by the Atlantic. They exist within the heart of liberalism, and lie right beneath its origins as a political philosophy.
As many historians of ideas have shown, including in recent decades Isaiah Berlin and John Gray, liberalism has long existed in at least two major versions. These not only divide liberals but rumble around beneath them, vying for pre-eminence at all times.
The first form of liberalism views liberalism as a mode of living together – a way of convening the many different political attitudes and movements which exist in any society and finding a way to get along harmoniously. In that form of liberalism almost all of us who believe in the franchise and accept that our preferred political outcomes will sometimes be achieved and often be rejected are some type of basic political liberals. But a second form of liberalism exists as well – and that is a form of liberalism which believes that liberalism is not a state of being but a political project in and of itself. European liberals largely find themselves in the former camp. American liberals more clearly in the second.
There is a long argument to be had within this – one going back to Hobbes. But the fissure between these two interpretations of liberalism does not only divide the US and Western Europe. It now exists beneath many Western political parties. Occasionally the fissure opens up and someone falls down through it.
Tim Farron is such a person. Before going any further I should say that I have never had any particular occasion to admire Mr Farron. I thought him unusually honest when he was once asked by an interviewer how he would like to be remembered and replied by saying that he would not be remembered. Perhaps I should also add that as somebody who argued the case for equal marriage before it became fashionable to do so, some people might expect me to be critical of Mr Farron for the content and cause of his political descent. But I can neither rejoice in it nor castigate him for it. Indeed I thought his treatment by his fellow liberals earlier this year to be not only deeply illiberal but deeply wrong. Furthermore, I think his speech to the Theos think-tank earlier this week to be a rather important moment of political clarity from a direction in which I would not previously have expected to look for it.
First it is worth remembering what Farron fell for. When repeatedly questioned in great and gruesome detail about his personal moral attitude towards homosexual sex he stumbled over the question of whether he saw it as innately ‘sinful’ or not. On a subsequent occasion – and after considerable barracking – he said that he did not think that it was. Too late. The scene had been set. Tim Farron was anti-gay. Elements of his party blamed this distraction for Liberal Democrats not making a greater break-through in June’s General Election and he subsequently stepped down from leading that badly monikered party, citing the interrogation of his religious beliefs as part of the explanation. Now that he is unburdened of office he is able to unburden himself of his true opinions. It is a shame he could not have remained in position and still done so.
Of course there were local reasons for the furore. One was that political opponents of Mr Farron could not pass up the opportunity to claim that the head of the Liberal Democrat party was a homophobe. It is true that his party have so enjoyed their moral preening when out of power in recent decades that other parties may be forgiven for finding the opportunity to beat the Liberal Democrats with one of their own favourite sticks to have been an opportunity too delicious to pass up. And it is also true that in the run-up to the June election journalists clearly felt happy demanding moral answers from a non-conformist Christian for the same reasons they have no fear demanding moral answers from an observant Catholic like Jacob Rees-Mogg. Since Christianity is still – vaguely – our own historic religious tradition, interviewers still know slightly better which questions to ask than they do with other religions. And unlike deeply questioning somebody of any other religious tradition about the intricacies of their faith, when questioning a Christian in such a manner, accusations of bigotry are unlikely to be instantly hurled back at the questioner.
But back to the fissure in liberalism which was the real reason why Farron fell. To anybody who cares about the difference it was always obvious that, by his actions, Farron demonstrated that he was almost the definition of a liberal. Even if he did believe that gay sex is morally wrong, he had done nothing in his political life to oppose the giving of equal rights to gay people. Indeed if he did believe gay sex to be sinful and voted the way he did on a range of matters then he should be held aloft almost as the exemplar of the first type of liberalism. He refused to let his own moral attitudes about a private matter cause him to legislate over people who may not share his own moral outlooks. That is perfectly and exactly how one type of liberal should behave.
Unfortunately for Mr Farron – and perhaps for us all – this type of liberalism is on the wane in Western Europe as in America. The liberalism that is growing is the liberalism which believes itself to be a campaigning political movement – a movement which must be forever on the march, rummaging into every cupboard, peering from the top of every ladder and pulling up every rug in search of anybody who does not share the latest iteration of the liberal manifesto.
Gay rights – and gay marriage in particular – provides an almost perfect example of this. The British government currently presents support for gay marriage to be not only a liberal right, but a demonstration of liberal British rights (one reason why Farron is also correct in his criticisms of the ‘myth’ of current ‘British values’). Thus to be opposed to gay marriage is now to be fundamentally misaligned with ‘British values’. Those of us who argued for gay marriage may be expected to look at people like the former education secretary Nicky Morgan (who opposed gay marriage), watch their swift recantation of their former positions and be expected to be happy. We may be expected to watch their turning of the thing they opposed until yesterday into a new dogma for tomorrow and be expected to celebrate. But personally I cannot. Give me a Farron over a Morgan any day. For there is something not just sinister but suspicious about dogmas being created this swiftly and people being expected not just to tolerate but to celebrate (and then apostasise those who do not celebrate) something which until yesterday was not even on the agenda of most campaigning liberals.
It is inevitable that – among the U-turns that this type of liberalism now demands, whipped along as it is by social media and crowd-shaming – that many people will suffer whiplash and some become roadkill. Those who fail to U-turn fast enough are not just treated harshly, but left for dead in the 100 miles per hour zig-zag race that this ‘liberal’ march has become.
Farron is absolutely right to say the newly predominant type of liberalism ‘isn’t very liberal any more.’ It was never going to be. But perhaps those of us who believe in convening liberalism – rather than campaigning liberalism – should start to consider huddling together. Strange bedfellows though we may inevitably find each other to be.
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