Ian Birrell is one of the Guardian’s occasional Token Tory commentators, and someone not averse to churning out a bit of clickbait when required. So it should be no surprise that just as ballot papers are going out in the Liberal Democrat leadership, he pops up with a hit piece on Tim Farron.
Some of it is banally predictable, with rehashed attacks seemingly borrowed from dodgy phone polls about Tim’s stance on LGBT rights and abortion. Rather than go into detail on those issues, I’ll just point out that you can find out Tim’s positions on those in his own words on LGBT here and on abortion here. But hey, when does anyone let a few actual facts get in the way of a bit of clickbaiting?
The main thrust of Birrell’s post, though, is the rather bizarre claim that Tim “seems to lack a driving spirit of liberalism”, which would make you wonder if he actually knows who Tim Farron is until you see what his definition of liberalism is. Birrell’s version of liberalism appears to be a version of social liberalism that’s somehow represented by ‘the great Labour reforms of the 60s’ and ‘small-state economic liberalism that found an echo in Margaret Thatcher’s Tories’. It’s a liberalism that’s little more than the modern centre-right consensus: slash the state, but don’t be too beastly to minorities and ignore anything that’s happened in the last twenty=five years. It’s a liberalism with all the sharp edges filed of so its safe for conservatives to play with and pretend they’re actually liberal, but with no danger of making them actually want to challenge anything. Birrell’s effectively calling for liberalism to be little more than a reincarnation of the National Liberals. There’s a bitter irony in him invoking Jo Grimond for his vision of liberalism, when it was Grimond who led the party away from alliances with the Tories on the right.
Coincidentally, Tim gave a speech at the IPPR today in which he set out more of his vision of liberalism which is centred around “liberty, democracy, fairness, internationalism, environmentalism and quality of life.” It’s a lot more detailed and nuanced than the ‘be generally nice, but don’t challenge anything’ idea that Birrell seems to think liberalism is.
Of course, Birrell’s not alone in portraying liberalism like this. As James Graham pointed out the other week:
For years the senior party line informed us the history of Lib Dem philosophical thought was this: a century of unbroken tradition in the vein of Mill and Gladstone; something something welfare state (shrug); 20 years of social democrat muddle and confusion following the party merger in 1987; a return to our liberal roots with Nick Clegg’s election in 2007.
As James says, this pushing of a very restrictive view of liberalism under a variety of different names (‘true liberalism’, ‘classical liberalism’, ‘four-cornered liberalism’, ‘authentic liberalism’ and others) is an attempt to ignore much twentieth century thinking about liberalism and pretend that there’s some Platonic ideal form of liberalism that was discovered in the 19th century which we all should be judged against.
Purely coincidentally of course, this version of liberalism is the one that challenges the status quo and the powerful in society the least. It has very little to say about power, and when it does it pretends that the only potentially dangerous power in society is that of the state, which must be shrunk and controlled while corporations and other institutions are assumed to be perfectly fine and needing nothing like the same level of control and oversight. While other forms of liberalism are concerned with controlling power, especially unaccountable power, the one thing I always find missing from ‘economic liberalism’ are any notions of power outside of the state, especially ideas of challenging it or making it accountable. Birrell’s vision of liberalism is one that keeps things safe and cosy for those in power, and I’m very glad that’s not a liberalism Tim Farron represents.