I voted for Tim Farron to become leader of the Liberal Democrats. He seemed – and still seems - less stuffy, more of the future, more on the left, and more committed to the poor, the vulnerable and those ground down by society than his rival, Norman Lamb and other senior Liberals, who nevertheless had many estimable qualities.
Under Tim, change seemed possible and transformation a necessity. At the time, Labour appeared to be going nowhere and whatever the merits of Jeremy Corbyn’s current manifesto, there was, and still is, the question as to how effective he would be at implementing it. The Tories, even with Ruth Davidson whom I admire, were beyond the pale: I would have had to hold my nose, squeeze my lips and stop my ears to vote for them, and that is without even thinking about Theresa May, or even David-come-back-all-is-forgiven-Cameron. The SNP only cared about Scotland, with Nicola Sturgeon like a demented terrier perpetually snapping at everyone’s ankles. The Greens had an excellent leader in Caroline Lucas and a good one in Patrick Harvie, but beyond that offered nothing much beyond what the Lib Dems themselves were offering – and in Scotland, they just seemed to be a sidekick of the Nationalists (pace my family, please don’t kill me…).
I was lucky to hear Tim speak a couple of times and he came across as utterly sincere and, indeed, passionate in his vision for a more equal Britain, a more caring Britain, a more open Britain – a more liberal Britain. And under his leadership, the Liberal Democrats produced the best, and most forward-looking, manifesto of any party’s, and a properly costed one at that.
So why didn’t they win more seats? And why was the writing on the wall for Tim Farron even before he eventually resigned?
Well, let’s get tuition fees and the Coalition out of the way first. I was shocked by the Coalition and many voters just could not forgive the Liberals for it. And yet, the Liberals were responsible for some of the genuinely significant achievements of that Parliament, though they were never credited with them, or with anything else they did at the time. The Pupil Premium, which succeeded in improving the educational achievements of many children in England’s schools, was one such policy. The commitment in legislation to 0.7% of the budget for international aid was another. However, they were unsuccessful in holding back the Tories’ austerity measures and, horror of horrors, they went back on their promise about tuition fees.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I am of the generation which paid no such fees, and I am not a supporter of them. However, there is, and should be, a debate about the funding of higher education. Scotland managed to abolish tuition fees by making other sectors of education pay. Council budgets were hammered, which, given eight years of frozen council taxes, affected school education. Our children are reaping the results even now, as I write. One hundred and fifty thousand (yes, 150,000) places on further education courses were slashed.
However, none of these issues pertained to Tim Farron in particular. It was Nick Clegg who paid the price.
Tim Farron, however, presided over the decision to offer the country a second referendum on leaving the European Union, specifically on the terms of the Brexit deal. He and the Liberal party - and I - are proud Europeans, indeed internationalists, and want to remain so. In no other election are the unsuccessful parties expected just to disband and go home. No, you go on fighting for what you believe in, in the hope that you will eventually bring people round to your way of thinking, win the argument and manage to change things. None of this Ukippy ‘you lost, get over it’.
It was clear that the decision to leave the EU was a disastrous one, taken without most voters having any clear idea of the range of embedded and valued aspects of British society which would be irrevocably damaged. The impact on the next generation is likely to be devastating. Nevertheless, the British people seem to have forgotten all that. They have either moved on from Brexit, or have shrugged their shoulders and accepted that the situation is hopeless. Yet it isn’t. We haven’t left yet. There is a lot still to fight for. Perhaps the Liberals’ decision should have been to fight on, not bother people by threatening yet another vote. I think it’s pretty obvious that we’ve all had enough of voting, not just Brenda of Bristol.
But, in the end, it was none of these issues which brought an end to Tim’s leadership. It was the fact that he himself – not the Liberals’ policies – became the story, and in particular, his stance on the thorny questions of homosexuality and abortion. Now he didn’t choose that, and no other leader was asked such questions. They were thrust upon him by interviewer after interviewer, leader writer after leader writer, and not just in the tabloids but in the liberal press. We have seen it all before and we will see it all again, when some other hapless victim gets caught before the headlights.
There has never been any doubt that Tim Farron genuinely believed that society should refrain from legislating on personal issues such as these, and let people make their own choices. However, that wasn’t what was interesting to the public. They and the media wanted to look into his heart and dissect his soul. In this day and age, they threw terms like ‘sin’ at him, in order to make him squirm. And he didn’t deal well with it. He should have stated his political position, which is the standard Liberal position, and told them fairly and squarely to mind their own business about his spiritual life.
And, ironically, those beliefs of his, those qualities, that commitment which I have so admired, came straight out of his Christian belief. Perhaps we should see him as the contemporary Charles Kingsley of social reform, all muscular Christianity (though not after one glance at his boyish profile).
Now Tim Farron's belief is not my belief, nor am I a great admirer of Evangelical Christianity. Indeed, I believe he, and the church to which he belongs, is misguided about such matters as homosexuality and abortion. But then, that’s me. So what. I have no more right to impose my more liberal religious beliefs on him than he would have to impose his more traditional beliefs on me. And I don’t think that as a political leader that is what he would have tried to do.
The whole debate makes me weary. I am tired of particular denominations, or strands of church belief and practice, being treated by society and the media as if they are mainstream Christianity. Christianity is two thousand years old. Even Christianity has moved with the times. Most Christians do not expect people to follow the cultural mores of Roman Palestine. Most Anglican/Episcopalians, most Scottish Presbyterians, most Methodists have, over the years, become more accepting of difference, more humane in their attitudes, more understanding of what really matters in their faith, more intelligent in their interpretation of Biblical teaching, than society would give them credit for - indeed, more so than many non-religious members of society themselves. After all, modern Christians are far better educated than their forebears, for one thing. And modern atheists like Richard Dawkins can be just as bigoted as mediaeval Christians.
The Roman Catholic Church too, under Pope Francis, has become much more understanding of the pressures and challenges to which people are subject, having at the same time been confronted by their clerics’ own frailties and transgressions, let alone the temptations we are all subject to. And please do not interpret this statement as my personal conviction that homosexuality and abortion are ‘temptations’. That is not what I believe.
So what do I believe about the issues which so vexed Tim Farron’s interviewers? I certainly don’t believe that Almighty God, surrounded by the suffering of Syrian and other refugees, by Ebola, Aids and malaria, by the distressing circumstances of so many children’s lives, by the horror of concentration camps and the disgracefulness and shame of the Grenfell fire, really cares tuppence about who goes to bed with whom.
Oh, but the traditionalists say, what about Old Testament teaching, what about the rules of Leviticus, what about the great grumbler St Paul? The Bible 'bans' homosexuality!
I say, what about the rest of Leviticus? It also advocates slavery, the rape of young girls and the humiliation of women. For goodness sake, Leviticus doesn’t even allow men to shave or women to cut their hair! And as for its rules about kitchens and cooking!
Furthermore, almost the whole of the Old Testament could be seen a justification for ethnic cleansing, the impact of which we can observe in Palestine even today. The Old Testament was written three thousand years ago, by ordinary fallible human beings responding to the challenges of the context in which they lived and drawing on ancient oral traditions. Some of the writers had more insight than others of their time, much of the language is glorious and expresses great truths about the human condition, but it is not a recipe book for living your life, not the sexual equivalent of the Highway Code. It is a set of Guidelines, and I don’t believe anyone inspects how well you implement them, let alone Jesus of Nazareth.
And abortion? A more thorny issue, I accept. I absolutely believe that women have the right to choose, the right to manage their reproductive lives. I don’t believe that abortion is wrong, though it is a very serious decision with many potential effects, not all of them physical. I do know that choosing abortion may be one of the most difficult decisions a woman may make. I do not know if I would make that decision myself. A lot would depend on the circumstances. I certainly don't think that it is a choice that other people can make for you.
Now, Tim Farron may have felt it was wrong, as do many Christians from a range of denominations. However, he believed absolutely in the woman's right to choose. And that is what matters. Are we really going to force everyone to hold the same views? Being a Liberal means accepting difference. I would have thought that being a Christian meant that too.
We have moved on over the last three thousand years. Society has moved on. One of the reasons that Jesus Christ was so threatening to so many of his contemporaries is that he himself had moved on from the kind of beliefs and religious behaviour which were embedded in Jewish society of the time. Remember: ‘let him without sin cast the first stone’? How challenging is that!
Christ gave us two laws only: love God and love your neighbour. They’re difficult enough for me, and I guess Tim Farron thinks the same.