Things Tim Farron doesn’t understand: Atheism

(Hopefully not the first in an ongoing series)

If you’ve seen more Liberal Democrats facepalming than usual this week, it’s probably thanks to Tim Farron’s speech to the Theos think tank in which he puts forward the argument that maybe it’s liberals who are the real illiberals. Featuring a variety of hoary old cod-philosophical chestnuts like equating freedom of speech with freedom from criticism, his speech goes on to argue that Christianity “is the essential underpinning of liberalism and, indeed, of democracy” which feels somewhat of a stretch. While I wouldn’t argue that it’s antithetical to either, for every Christian he cites on the side of social progress, there were others fighting against them, arguing that their particular brand of injustice was endorsed by the Bible. I don’t dispute that individual Christians have had an influence on the development of liberalism and democracy but to claim that Christianity itself is somehow fundamentally linked to them feels akin to claiming that you can’t use calculus without agreeing with the religious views of Newton and Leibniz.

It also misses out that saying ‘I am a Christian’ is similar to saying ‘I am a liberal’ in that the statement alone reveals very little about the person’s actual belief. Just as ‘liberal’ is used across almost the entire political spectrum, so ‘Christian’ can mean anything from fire-and-brimstone revivalists who think Trump’s a bit too moderate for their tastes to Quakers complaining Jeremy Corbyn’s a bit centrist. There are plenty of intersections between the two along those scales, but neither is fundamental to the other.

However, the bit of the speech where my raised eyebrow threatened to tear a muscle came near the end when he talks about atheism like this:

Well look, atheism is not the absence of belief, it is a belief in absence and therefore the absence of common values. It’s a belief in there being no unifying truth. But if there is no unifying truth then, by its own standard, the belief that there is no unifying truth must also be bogus. If you declare that there is no unifying truth then it stands to reason that this declaration isn’t true either. Ergo, atheism doesn’t exist. And I refuse to believe in something that doesn’t exist.

This is a somewhat bizarre interpretation of atheism, most notably regarding atheism as a belief in itself and thus somehow self-negating because it’s a belief in nothing. It also comes up earlier when he says it would be “silly…to make atheism the state religion”, which I would agree with, though we’re clearly using two different ideas of silly here. He thinks it’s possible to make atheism a state religion because it’s somehow a belief like a religion, while I think it’s silly because it’s the same as declaring you’re going to make a pumpkin your car.

There’s an old saying that Tim doesn’t seem to have encountered or understood: we’re all atheists, I just believe in one less god than you. I don’t believe in Tim’s God the same way he doesn’t believe in Vishnu, Ahura Mazda, Odin, the Tooth Fairy or Russell’s Teapot. However, not believing in a certain category of things does not mean not believing in all things, and it especially does not mean that atheists believe in an absence of common values. By a similar leap of logic I could argue that if there is no unifying truth there can be no unifying understanding, thus there can be no language, therefore you’re not actually reading this blog post right now because the language it’s written in doesn’t exist. That argument doesn’t actually make sense – all I’ve done is transposed the word ‘unifying’ from one context to another and claim it does – and it’s the same as suddenly reversing the words in your definition of atheism and claiming that’s also true.

Atheism does not mean believing in nothing, it just means not believing in a god or gods. Atheists can believe in universal truths and values, but ones that are revealed by natural action or human discovery, not by being handed down by divine writ from above. Some may not believe in unifying truths or common values, but there are plenty of religious people who do the same – some will live in heaven for eternity, while the rest of us are doomed to eternal damnation is hardly unifying, is it – so to claim it’s a special property of atheism, and one shared by all atheists, is simply misunderstanding the concept at a basic level.

I’m annoyed by this speech, not just because it feels like a real slap in the face for those of us who defended Tim a few months ago, but because it feels like little more than a compendium of Christian cliches about secularism, liberalism and atheism. It seems to be getting him some attention, but when Tim’s new admirers include people like Tim Montgomerie and Douglas Murray it’s hard not to be reminded of Dora Gaitskell’s comment when her husband basked in seeming triumph at a Labour conference: “all the wrong people are clapping.”

Of centrists, radicals and liberals

As the Liberal Democrat leadership election now appears likely to consist of just two stages – closing nominations, and announcing Vince Cable is the winner – attention now turns to what direction the party will head in under its new leader, with some declaring that the only way forward is for the party to become the herald of the ‘radical centre’. This is often linked to claims that what Britain needs is a new centre party and that Macron and Trudeau are examples the party should follow (click on the links to see what I wrote about those ideas before to save me from writing them out again).

The problem with the ‘radical centre’ is that it’s a phrase that’s effectively meaningless, a political buzzword that you invoke to get the nodding approval of your audience without any of you actually agreeing on what it means. Some hear ‘radical’ and think back to the radical reformers of the nineteenth century, imagining it invokes the spirit of the Chartists and others to overturn the structures of power, or they see the unfinished business of the early twentieth century to tax land and wealth, while others imagine it as a call to the spirit of Hayek and Thatcher to radically cut back the state and taxes. Meanwhile some see the centre as a nice safe place to be, just picking what they like from left and right, while others see it as merely a location of necessity on a scale they have no interest in. And all of them hear ‘radical centre’ and see something different from their neighbour whilst imagining everyone is thinking the same as them. (And I will admit to having used this empty signifier myself in the past)

And when you come down to it and ask for an explanation of what the ‘radical centre’ is you get something like this from The Economist. The exact policy detail may change between different ‘radical centrists’ but the intention is the same, wanting a centrism that “reconciles the left’s impatience at an unsatisfactory status quo with the right’s scepticism about grandiose redistributive schemes.” Or in other words, recognising that things are bad or very bad for some people, but there’s not much that can be done about it beyond a few tweaks. Despite the Economist’s claim to liberalism, there’s a strong element of small-c conservatism behind this position as it’s a belief that everything’s essentially all right and any changes that are needed to make things better are purely administrative rather than structural. Quite where the ‘radical’ applies in this centrism is anyone’s guess, and the liberalism it invokes is very much a conservative liberalism that often likes to ignore that left-liberalism exists.

One of the problems of discussing centrism in British politics is that the concept has become strongly linked with liberalism, but I think this is more by a historic quirk of the British party system rather than any ideological similarity between liberalism and centrism. British liberalism has always been a broad church movement, trying to bring together the various different strands of liberalism into one party which, in order to accommodate all these different beliefs has tended to split the difference between them and oscillate around the ideological centre. When we look to other countries we can see liberal parties that don’t anchor themselves in the centre, and we also see centre parties (especially those from the Christian Democrat tradition) that don’t define themselves as liberal but do see themselves as a bridge between left and right. While I doubt any of these parties would define themselves as radical, they do exist as centrist parties of varying levels of political success.

One train of thought I’m developing in my work on centre parties – and this is still quite nascent, so comments and thoughts on it welcome – is the concept of a political system having what I’m calling for now a ‘centrist moment’. That is to say, there’s a period of time where there’s tacit agreement of parties and electorate to agree upon a consensus politics of the centre which can either take the form of a centrist party being in power or an alternation between left and right that’s effectively about managerial differences rather than ideological ones. Systems move between a centrist moment and a polarized one (where differences are accentuated and ideology becomes more important) independently of any left-right ideological movement as they choose to accept or reject a consensus. In this view, Britain is actually exiting a two-decade long centrist moment, while France is entering one. We can’t have a British Macron, because we’ve already have one.

If we continue to conflate liberalism and centrism – whether it’s ‘radical’ or not – then we’re heading up a blind alley towards a liberalism that doesn’t challenge anything but is content to be brought out in defence of the status quo. It’s liberalism with the sharp edges filed off to make it safe and unthreatening to anyone with any actual power and of no hope to anyone without power looking in on the gilded centre from the outside. Just saying you’re radical doesn’t mean you are, no matter how many times people might say it.

We need to stand together – so how do we do it?

joinordieTwo pieces from the post-Trump cacophony that have me thinking. First, Charles Stross reminds us that playtime is over:

A few years ago, wandering around the net, I stumbled on a page titled “Why Japan lost the Second World War”. (Sorry, I can’t find the URL.) It held two photographs. The first was a map of the Pacific Theater used by the Japanese General Staff. It extended from Sakhalin in the north to Australia in the south, from what we now call Bangladesh in the west, to Hawaii in the east. The second photograph was the map of the war in the White House. A Mercator projection showing the entire planet. And the juxtaposition explained in one striking visual exactly why the Japanese military adventure against the United States was doomed from the outset: they weren’t even aware of the true size of the battleground.

I’d like you to imagine what it must have been like to be a Japanese staff officer. Because that’s where we’re standing today. We think we’re fighting local battles against Brexit or Trumpism. But in actuality, they’re local fronts in a global war. And we’re losing because we can barely understand how big the conflict is.

The second is Nosemonkey’s take on how to market liberalism:

The right is brilliant at coming up with catchy slogans and iconography. It’s why propaganda and aesthetics were such a core part of 20th century fascism. It’s why Goebbels was such a vital part of the Nazi regime. It’s all about manipulation, it’s all about marketing. The truth doesn’t matter?—?the message does.
On the alt-right / far right, the ultimate message is clear: “People who are different to you are making your life worse, and we will stop them.”
On the left / far left, the ultimate message is clear: “Big business is making your life worse, and we will stop it.”
What is the clear message for liberalism / moderates / the centre? “It’s a bit more complicated than that?—?now let me explain at length why the world isn’t black and white, but shades of grey.”
Yawn.

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post about how we need to work together, when the biggest upcoming problem seemed to be the Richmond Park by-election. One of the messages there was how we’ve all won lots of battles against each other, but then the Tories won the war. Again, I was thinking too parochial. There’s a wider war going on, the one Charles Stross mentions, and while we might not have lost it yet, we’ve taking a pounding in the opening battles and are too busy squabbling about why we lost them to start making plans for the next ones.

So I’m not going to look back and try and fix the past, because that’s just forming another blame-threading circular firing squad when what we need to be doing is working together. The only question those of us who don’t want to be buried under the reactionary wave should be asking is how do we all put it behind us and focus on the future because we’re all fed up of losing and now we can’t afford to lose any more. How do we do that? I don’t know the answer, but i know we need to keep talking to each other, letting people get the confidence to put their ideas out there, and discussing them in friendship and co-operation.

If we’re going to get out of this and win the future, we need to learn that we can’t afford to compromise with the other side, but we have to be able to compromise and find common ground with each other, or they’ll happily divide us and conquer.

Shortlisted

winninghereBack in November, I entered the Liberal Democrats’ Agenda 2020 essay competition. The aim was to write a short essay on ‘what does it mean to be a Liberal Democrat today?’ and I posted my entry here on the blog as well.

The entries to it have now all been read, and mine is one of those that made it through onto the final shortlist. So you can now read mine as well as the other eight on the shortlist and decide on which one you think best captures the meaning of what it is to be a Liberal Democrat today. You can vote until February 12th, with the winner being announced at the next party conference in York in March. So, go read them and have your say.

Those who appointed Rennard need to accept the consequences of what they’ve done

Lib-Dem-logoWith depressing predictability, many people’s response to the concerns a lot of Liberal Democrat members have raised about the return of Chris Rennard to the Federal Executive has been ‘aren’t there more important things to worry about?’ It’s also interesting to note that ‘shut up and deliver leaflets‘ has now evolved into ‘go and do some phone canvassing’. This is of course mixed in with ‘don’t you know there’s a by-election on’ and ‘talking about this just gives us bad publicity’ to try and shut down any debate by blaming everyone else for the bad things.

It’s an interesting attempt at political judo: trying to make it look like it’s those people complaining about the Lords putting Chris Rennard on the FE are the ones in the wrong, rather than those who’ve actually made the decision. It feels to me very much like people who misunderstand free speech – yes, you have the right to say what you like, or elect whoever you choose, but that doesn’t free you from the consequences of your actions. Imagine if Tim Farron used his slot at Prime Minister’s Questions to ask Cameron if he could tell him who put the ram in the ram a lam a ding dong. He’s perfectly entitled to ask that, and as leader he can choose the subject of his questions, but he’d have to face the consequences of that choice.

This is the situation the Lords group – or, at least, the 40-odd of them who voted for Rennard – are in. They’ve made their decision according to the rules they have and in accordance with the power they have to appoint a member to the FE. Having seen the decision they’ve made, a large chunk of people in the rest of the party have pointed out that it’s a really bad decision and the response hasn’t been to try and explain why they think it’s a good decision, but to complain that people are daring to criticise it. Hiding behind ‘there are more important things you should be doing’ and ‘you’re making the party look bad, go and deliver leaflets as penance’ is quite a depressing way to try and avoid a debate and shift the blame for the effects of a decision onto those who didn’t make it.

Too many people forget that liberalism is about the freedom to make decisions and act, but that freedom comes with responsibility for the consequences of your actions. No one acts in a vacuum or makes decisions that are void of consequences and to assume that you can do whatever you want without facing criticism when you get it wrong is to demand to be removed from all consequences and be unaccountable in the way you exercise your power. Unaccountable power is something liberalism opposes, and it’s those who are trying to get everyone to move on and just accept it that are being illiberal here.

My Agenda 2020 essay: What does it mean to be a Liberal Democrat today?

Lib-Dem-logoAs part of the Agenda 2020 policy process, the party is holding an essay contest asking for 1000 words on ‘what does it mean to be a Liberal Democrat today?’ This is my entry to it, written in a rush as the deadline came near, and you can see other people’s efforts on Liberal Democrat Voice.

Liberal Democrats want to give more freedom to everyone to enable them to live their own lives. However, we also know that freedom for individuals is not enough, and that it must be combined with breaking down the unaccountable powers of the state, in the economy and in society to enable individuals to fully use their freedom. We live in a world where there is more power to affect the lives of individuals than there ever has been, and by focusing on freeing people from historic controls we are cutting the strings and chains that tie them down, but ignoring the new ropes and cables that bind them even tighter.

To be a Liberal Democrat is to recognise that power has to exist, but that where it does exist it must be accountable. We are not opposed to the existence of power and recognise that it is needed to build, maintain and develop the society we live in, but we recognise that power needs to be controlled. Freedom is not simply removing a power over someone, freedom is giving people the ability to participate in power.

Liberals understand that power comes in many different forms and that the power of the state is just one of them. Indeed, it may be the weakest power of all because the concept of state power being accountable to those it affects is widely accepted, even if not regularly seen in practice. As liberals, we can spend far too much time getting upset about the minutiae of the use and misuse of state power while ignoring unaccountable power in society and the economy.

As Liberal Democrats we often eagerly point to how we believe that ‘no one should be enslaved by conformity’, but without focusing on how we make that happen in reality. We need to recognise that just saying oppression and enforced conformity is bad is not enough. Identifying it should be just the first step and we need to be prepared to discuss how we as Liberal Democrats are actually going to take on the unaccountable power and privilege that causes so much harm in our society, including within our own party. To be a Liberal Democrat today should be to understand that just telling someone they are free isn’t enough, it’s about standing with them to challenge the power and privilege that oppresses them.

Liberalism is internationalist at its heart, recognising that everyone deserves the same rights and respect no matter where they live, what language they use or who their parents were. People working together across national borders have achieved some of the greatest liberal successes of the last century, from eradicating diseases to ending apartheid, but we need to ensure liberal and internationalist values remain for the centuries to come. There is a great power in people acting together through global institutions and we need to ensure that power is accountable and effective to achieve future liberal goals across the planet, and even beyond it.

To be a Liberal Democrat today should also be to understand the danger of unaccountable economic power. We need to deal with the new concentrations of unaccountable power within the economy that have massive effects on people’s lives that they can do nothing about. Free trade was a means to an end, ensuring that the poorest in society would be able to afford to eat, but we have turned it into an end in itself, regardless of the effect it has on people. We talk of trade between nations and empowering individuals, ignoring the vast unaccountable powers of corporations and how they take away freedom and choice from individuals, concentrating economic power amongst an unaccountable elite.

Liberalism is about people and we need to create a world where the economy works for the benefit of the people, not one where people work for the benefit of the economy. We need to fight for education systems that develop people as individuals, not merely as future workers; for social security that concentrates on supporting people, not subsidising employers; and for an economy that liberates people to spend more time doing what they want, where everyone’s abilities and contributions to society are welcomed.

Beyond the state, society and the economy, there is a further power that we must address: our environment. This is a different order of power, where climate change is capable of destroying everything our society is based on, rendering liberalism and every other ideology meaningless. And yet, it is vital that we understand a liberal response to this crisis is necessary because only through liberalism and recognising the value of every life on this planet can we build a global response. Liberalism is international by instinct, seeing potential in every person, and that international instinct is also environmental, recognising that we need to protect our planet to ensure that it’s not just us who get the chance to live the lives we want, but all the generations still to come. Human survival is important, and we increase our chances of that survival by giving people reasons to believe in a better tomorrow.

To be a Liberal Democrat today is to recognise that liberals have made a start in tackling these unaccountable powers in the state, in society and in the economy but it is only a start and there is so much more work to be done. The fight for liberalism is not a new one: it has taken many forms and many different names over the years, but at its heart it has always sought to break up power, to make it accountable, and to give all the chance to live the life they wish. To be a Liberal Democrat is to want to take power from the unaccountable and let people use it for themselves because that’s the only way we can create a world for everyone.

Liberals, social democrats and Liberal Democrats: The Economist joins the long list of those not understanding the difference

sdpliberalQuick question: Which of the two Liberal Democrat leadership candidates was a member of the SDP? The correct answer is, of course, Norman Lamb who was a member of both the Liberal Party and the SDP (membership of both parties was allowed) while Tim Farron was only ever a member of the Liberal Party pre-merger.

I bring this up because in their endorsement of Norman Lamb for leader, the Economist makes the claim that Tim Farron is a ‘traditional social democrat’ while Norman Lamb is a ‘classical liberal’. (They also shockingly use ‘shoe-in’ rather than ‘shoo-in‘, making me wonder how far their subbing standards have fallen)

The idea that the Liberal Democrats are divided between two factions with pure unadulterated classical liberals locked in a life-or-death struggle with soggy social democrats is one common across many pundits and politicos. It’s based on the solid fact that the party was formed out of a merger between the Liberal Party and the Social Democratic Party, so naturally one would expect the factions in the party to reflect those divisions. It’s a fine supposition, weakened only by the fact that it’s utter bollocks. On a simple matter numbers I suspect that even before the post-election surge, most of the party’s members (including me) joined after the merger, and a large chunk of them now were likely not even born when it happened.

The narrative also ignores the actual history of and ideology of the two parties pre-merger. The Liberal Party was not stuck in the rut of holding the same policies it had held in Victorian times, and was certainly not a ‘classical liberal’ party. Under Grimond, the party had turned away from electoral pacts with the Conservatives in favour of seeking ‘realignment of the left’; under Thorpe the party had adopted the principles of community politics and the radical ideas of the ‘Red Guard’ of the Young Liberals began moving into the mainstream of the party; and Steel negotiated the Lib-Lab pact, then looked to work with Jenkins to realign the left. The dominant ideas in the Liberals from the late 50s to the end of the party were in the tradition of the New Liberalism of the early twentieth century, not the ‘classical’ liberalism of the nineteenth.

Meanwhile, the SDP was not especially committed to the principles of social democracy as it’s commonly understood – indeed, most actual social democrats remained in the Labour Party and helped draw it back towards the centre. The SDP’s aims were more around creating a party of the centre and realigning British politics (remember that this was after the 70s, when the old institutions of Britsh politics and the two-party system had begun to show their first cracks). Under both Jenkins and Owen, the party was much more about centrism and balancing extremes of left and right than it was about promoting even the mildest form of socialism. If anything, the party’s most symbolic issue under Owen was one of Britain retaining Trident rather than anything to do with economics or society. By the end of its life – and especially in its post-merger rebirth, SDP-ism had become little more than proclaiming the greatness of David Owen and complaining about how all the radical ideas of the Liberals needed to be reined in. The lack of any overriding identity for the SDP other than centrism can be seen in how its members scattered to the political winds – some to the Lib Dems, some to New Labour, others following Owen towards the Tories (and often going further than him in actually joining them).

If there’s any lingering tension within the Liberal Democrats that can be traced back to the two different parties it’s not a fight between right and left but rather one between centrists and radicals (though that was present to some extent in both predecessor parties, and exists in other parties too). Centrism is there in Roy Jenkins and his ‘great crusade to change everything just a little bit’, Owen’s defense of the elite consensus on nuclear weapons, Spitting Image’s early Ashdown ‘neither one thing nor the other but somewhere in between’ and this year’s ‘look left, look right, then cross’ rhetoric. It’s the sort of thing the in-house magazines of the establishment like The Economist love because it’s not about rocking the boat, just presenting a slightly liberal-tinged version of what the great and the good all agree on that doesn’t challenge any existing power. Radicals, on the other hand, are looking to change the system and cause a fundamental shift in the distribution of power, following in the footsteps of many Liberals before. That, I think, is a more fruitful way of looking at any differences within the party, rather than looking for divisions based on irrelevant squabbles from thirty years ago.

Claiming Tim Farron isn’t a ‘strong liberal voice’ is only possible if you don’t have a clue what liberalism is

Tim-Farron-007Ian 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.

Why we need to make the case for liberalism as a whole, not just as a set of policies

Lib-Dem-logoTim Farron’s given an interview to the Independent outlining more of his vision for the Liberal Democrats if he’s elected leader, the gist of which is in this quote:

“You need to motivate people. People vote for a political party because of what is in their wallet or issues that they weigh up in their head. But you join a political party because something gets you in your gut and it’s time we went out there and got people in their gut.”

It tied in with a thought I had reading this post by Alex Marsh earlier. The problem we’ve had – and it’s exemplified by the General Election manifesto – is that we’ve made liberalism look like a list of policy demands rather than an idea. That’s why the Economist can make the bizarre claim that the Tories have “swallowed much of the (Liberal Democrats’) ideology” when they’ve merely dropped their objection ot a few liberal social policies like same sex marriage, while remaining fundamentally illiberal and authoritarian.

When we identify liberalism as nothing more than a set of policies (whether those policies come from centrism or anywhere else) we make it easier for others to adopt a figleaf of liberalism by borrowing those policies while ignoring the ideas that drive them. David Boyle makes the point here that we’ve often chosen “an ecstacy of positioning rather than saying anything clearly at all”. If we let people think that liberalism means “whatever is in the centre ground at the moment” then we shouldn’t be surprised when people claim there’s little need for a liberal party when everyone else is fighting over the political centre. Indeed, we shouldn’t be surprised about our election performance when we define ourselves solely in terms of what other parties are and what we’re not.

That’s why what Tim Farron is proposing for the party is important, and why I’m supporting him for leader. We can’t just be a party that talks about individual policies, we have to be one that links those policies to a liberal vision and liberal values and that’s something Tim does brilliantly. A party that exists solely as a Parliamentary think tank that puts forward a few policies that may or may not be adopted be other parties isn’t one that’s going to have a long existence in the current climate. We might have survived like that when politics was less fragmented, but now there are plenty of other parties for people to choose from, and we have to be the party at the head of a liberal movement.

This will be a new direction for the party, because it’s not just in the last five years that we’ve often retreated to the comfort zone of talking about policy rather than pushing liberal values. If we’re going to recover and grow, we need to show that we’re not just promoting certain policies because they’re good ideas but because they’re linked to our liberal vision and ideology and so if they support one of our policies they’ll like the rest as well. If we don’t make the case for liberalism, no one else will, but they’ll happily brand some form of pseudo-liberalism as the the real thing and claim that real liberalism isn’t needed any more.

Why I’m backing Tim Farron for Liberal Democrat leader

farronforleaderIt feels odd to recall that the general election was just two weeks ago. It was a campaign where nothing seemed to happen, and then an election that pulled the rug out from under a lot of us and radically changed British politics. Two weeks ago, I was thinking that we’d be arguing over coalition wrangling right now, not a leadership election. Instead, we find ourselves with the party in the worst position its been in for at least four decades and the question we’re being asked is now a simple one of how do we survive this?

Leadership elections are often focused on issues of policy, tactics and organisation, because they can assume that the fundamental questions of party strategy and survival have been answered. The election has shown that we can’t assume that the Liberal Democrats will remain around just because we always have, but the result has shown that there is a greater need for liberalism in the UK, and if we don’t fight for it, then who will? Other parties may occasionally adopt the odd liberal policy, but that doesn’t make their cores any less authoritarian, and some may adopt liberal rhetoric to argue for illiberal ends, imagining that freedom can be reduced to nothing more than consumer choice but saying nothing about challenging unaccountable power.

The temptation at a time like this is to turn in on ourselves, contemplate our collective navel for the next year or two and then gingerly step back out onto the political stage with a suitably tweaked message and image. We could do that, and find that while we were away the Government has swept away the Human Rights Act, introduced mass surveillance of the entire population, slashed the welfare budget, put Britain on the path to an EU exit, privatised everything that’s not nailed down, and set in place the break up of the country. This is a time that liberalism needs to be bold and out there, defending rights, standing up for a fairer and more equal society and championing internationalism.

Whoever is the new leader of the Liberal Democrats, their main job for the next few years is to lead the fight for liberal values and build a liberal movement (not just a party) that can fight for those values. For me, the person who can do that better than anyone else in the party is Tim Farron. Watch his 2014 speech at party conference where he sets out the importance of liberal values in dealing with the issues we face now:

More than that, Tim understands that liberalism needs to be a proactive force, not just a reactive one. His call to build a new consensus is an important one and an understanding that politics shouldn’t just be about adapting to the current political situation and tacking from side to side within the current consensus, but seeking to redefine the tiny frame British politics is conducted within. If we’re serious about making liberalism relevant, the way forward isn’t to jump into the rapidly narrowing space between the other parties but to be proud and unashamed about making the case for truly liberal values.

Tim fits in with my vision of what liberalism should be and what it needs to be in the 21st century: an idea that stands up for people against unaccountable power in all its forms and an idea that challenges the assumptions of the political consensus, arguing for real change, and a better life for everyone. Liberalism should be out there challenging the status quo, insisting that there’s a better way, and building a wide movement to win that fight. As a party right now we need a leader who can campaign hard and push forward those liberal values.

Tim Farron is the right candidate at the right time for our party, and that’s why I’m supporting him to be the next leader of the Liberal Democrats.