Nick Spencer: Tim Farron and the two kinds of liberalism
Upon resigning as Lib Dem leader, Farron made it clear he is a modus vivendi liberal.
Tim Farron’s powerful resignation speech left a lot of people asking questions about his faith, and about how religion mixes with politics more generally. It was the obvious direction in which to take the story.
Obvious, but wrong: Farron’s resignation, and the painful experiences on the campaign trail about which he spoke, did pose serious questions, but it posed them primarily about liberalism. Specifically, what kind of liberal society we want to live in?
Liberalism is a big idea, one that has evolved in very different ways over the last two centuries, and has adopted many seemingly inconsistent political forms. What Americans mean by “liberal” is very different from what most Europeans do. The Liberal Party of Australia and the Liberal Democratic Party of Japan do not have very much in common with the British party of that name. What the Economist means when it describes itself as a liberal newspaper is subtly different from what the Guardian does.
Running through this confusion like a fault line, however, are two key conceptions or, in John Gray’s formulation, “faces” of what liberalism is. On the one reckoning, liberalism is “theory of a universal rational consensus”, a substantive, even comprehensive idea of what it is to live well. It is its own vision of what is good and right, and even how we might achieve it.
On the other, liberalism is a way of recognising and then managing the reality of deep and fundamentally irreconcilable difference. It is a task of tolerating other views, and allowing as much space as possible for people to pursue their own visions of the good. Here it is less a vision or a programme in itself, and more a referee or an umpire, overseeing the cultures and ideologies that clash in the public square without becoming too embroiled in the fight.
This was the fault line that Farron found himself stranded on the wrong side of. Farron was (and is) primarily the latter kind of liberal, sometimes known as a modus vivendi liberal. He described himself in his resignation speech as a being a “liberal to my fingertips” but, interestingly, went on to clarify that as the kind of liberalism that is “passionate about defending the rights and liberties of people who believe different things to me.”
The clarification was necessary presumably because he had become painfully aware that the other kind of liberalism – the ‘muscular’ one that has a much clearer idea of the right way to act, speak and even think – was a powerful, increasingly hegemonic force in the liberal circles in which he moved. Farron clearly spoke and acted in a way that satisfied this kind of muscular liberalism – as the parliamentary speeches and voting record to which he referred testified. But a few moments on the campaign trail intimated that he might not have thought that way and – worse – he might not have though that way for religious reasons. The rest, as they say, was history, as was his career as a political leader.
Farron could have slipped out the back door quietly, claiming that he had stabilised the party after the brutalities of the 2015 election but that now it was time for a fresh vision and voice to take the party forward. The fact that he did not, and preferred instead to return to some of the more bruising moments of his campaign, testifies to his strength of feeling on the matter.
His words are worth pondering. “We are kidding ourselves if we think we yet live in a tolerant, liberal society.” This is painful admission coming from someone who felt compelled to stand down from the leadership of Britain’s only “liberal” party. But it is also perhaps also the wake up call that those of us who like to call ourselves liberals badly need.
Nick Spencer is research director at Theos and the editor of The Mighty and the Almighty: how political leaders do God (Biteback, 2017)