16 June 2017

The British are a liberal people. Why aren’t the Lib Dems more popular?


All political lives end in pathos. Such, at any rate, is one conclusion to be drawn from Tim Farron’s demise. The Liberal Democrat leader has decided that his faith trumps his politics and retired, not without a certain plangent note of sadness, from front-line politics.

As he put it in his valedictory statement, “I have found myself torn between living as a faithful Christian and serving as a political leader. A better, wiser person than me may have been able to deal with this more successfully, to have remained faithful to Christ while leading a political party in the current environment.”

The passion of Farron, at least as it unfolded in this campaign, seemed only to be concerned with his views on abortion and gay sex. How, his inquisitors – tormentors, if you prefer – asked, could a liberal hold retrograde views on such matters? Never mind too that Farron’s voting and public records on such matters are impeccably liberal. It is not enough to be pure in action; you must be pure in heart too and here poor Farron was found wanting.

Even so, it is easy, and also necessary, to observe that Farron’s difficulties in this recent election were not solely the result of his evangelical Christianity. That is, if he were a more persuasive political performer, a more charismatic leader with a clearer vision for Britain, the embarrassment of his extravagant faith might have been more easily forgiven. God is not the problem; taking the lord too seriously – or at least  too publicly – might be.

As far as British liberals are concerned, David Cameron – quoting Boris Johnson – offered the only truly acceptable definition of Anglican faith: like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns, “it comes and goes”. By all means believe in god, then, so long as you don’t bang on about it.

The foolishness of proper belief – as expressed by the guardians of acceptable liberal opinion –  is reserved for peoples adhering to other religions. This, when you think about it, is an interesting and revealing proposition that does not necessarily reflect tremendously well upon those who, intuitively though rarely publicly, hold it. For it says that evangelical Christians should be held to a different, and presumably higher, standard than convinced adherents to other religions who, being more simple souls, can be forgiven the eccentricities of their religious beliefs.

Be that as it may, Farron’s failure is broader than this. There was, or should have been, an opportunity to reimagine the Liberal Democrats in this election. Farron palpably failed to do so. It is hard to suppress the thought that a party led by Charlie Kennedy or even, despite his own loss in Sheffield Hallam, a Nick Clegg less contaminated by his own past, would have fared rather better.

Brexit? Yes, but not this particular Brexit. At a time when class-distinctions have rarely been less useful in terms of predicting political affiliation, there should have been an opening for a Lib Dem party that was neither too right nor too left. A Goldilocks party, for sure, and just as smug and prim as Ms Goldilocks but still a party that could speak to the great mass of British voters enthused by neither May nor Corbyn. Farron, it is now clear, could not do that, not least because he grievously underestimated the manner in which the British people, never being great enthusiasts for the European project, have made their peace with Brexit.

Despite the apparent evidence of this election, the British are a liberal people. For the most part, they exhibit little desire to peer into men’s souls. They are for a modicum of state intervention and regulation but not to the point at which it becomes excessive; they dislike higher taxes but prize the concept of a fair shake and a square go for Joe Bloggs; they want a welfare safety net but not a welfare comfort zone; they prize wealth but not at all costs; they are sceptical about the EU but not zealots for a so-called hard Brexit; they desire reform but distrust radicalism; they value being left alone but not being abandoned; they believe in let and let live so long as you also subscribe to some commonly agreed shared precepts; they are a tolerant people intolerant of intolerance; they are uncommonly easy-going and, to an unusual degree, hard to whip into a fervour (though when that fervour arises they are also, temporarily, none of the above).

And yet they distrust politicians who offer them something that is neither one thing nor the other. The Liberal Democrats could do something about that but doing it would probably require them to be a different party; one less keen on chivying and scolding and truer to the liberal part of their name.

Even so, I am not sure that would be enough. Classical liberalism, for instance, has never been a matter of widespread popular enthusiasm, not least because it is these days too easily conflated with establishment interest. Changing that perception and, the related matter of rehabilitating neoliberalism, needs better politicians and stronger liberals than anything the Liberal Democrats can currently offer.

Tim Farron’s problems were less his beliefs than the suspicion, unworthy as it might have been, that he was out of step with modern Britain. Liberalism need not disavow belief; it was after all a cause and a sensibility founded on righteous belief. But it needs to be able to speak to modern Britain and Tim Farron was never able to do that.

But the wheel turns and just as the current revival of two-party politics seems, on first glance, to have scuppered liberalism, so it is wise to remember that all orthodoxies and even all new realities contain within them the seeds of their own downfall.

The challenge for the Liberal Democrats and, rather more importantly, for liberalism too is to be ready to take advantage of that when, as will happen, the shortcomings of Mayism and Corbynism becomes all too apparent and all too painfully acute.

Alex Massie is a political commentator