Interview: A liberal helping
Tim Farron MP talks to Stephen Tomkins
Tim Farron became Leader of the Liberal Democrats in 2015, to pick up the pieces after the party was decimated in a general election that reduced its Westminster seats from 57 to eight. His two years in the role will perhaps be best remembered for his attempts – ultimately unsuccessful – to keep his Christian faith out of the spotlight.
Membership of the party quickly revived during Mr Farron’s time, but this did not translate into electoral recovery, the Lib Dems winning 12 seats in 2017. In retrospect, however, by leading the party in an adamantly anti-Brexit direction – ‘betting the farm’ on Remain, as he put it – Mr Farron started the process of their extraordinary recent revival.
Although Mr Farron has been consistently in favour of LGBT rights, in the 2017 election, journalists repeatedly pressed him about whether he considered gay sex sinful. It was a question he found difficult to answer satisfactorily in public while staying true to both his faith and politics.
When he stepped down after the 2017 election, Nick Spencer, of the Theos thinktank, said in Reform that Mr Farron been ‘found guilty of a thought crime’. Mr Farron himself said it was impossible to remain in the post without ‘road crashing’ his faith, and has since been critical of the liberal west’s intolerance of religion.
Reform talked to him in his Westminster office.
What values were you brought up with? Was your family particularly political or religious?
Neither. Mum and Dad split up when I was about five. My mum’s family were non-observant Anglican, with a Methodist back story; my dad’s side Catholic and observant. We lived with my mum – I went to church once with my dad.
But not having a religious faith does not mean that you are value-free. My mother was a very moral person, she took social issues very seriously. She was what I think Adrian Mole’s mum called the ‘nouveau poor’. After she’d been on the dole for a month we had to cancel the subscription to The Guardian. That was one of the last things she hung onto. My grandfather, who was your archetypal Express reader, started getting The Guardian just so he could drop it off for my mother.
So values, opinions, treating people equally, with kindness, a sense that there was right and there was wrong. My mother made me sit down and watch Roots when I was eight or nine.
How did you encounter Christianity?
There was a Christian union at school which I went nowhere near. I went to a huge sixth form college in Leyland, Lancashire. Many more famous people than me went there, including Lloyd Cole. A guy called Jack was the college Christian – he was mocked but fondly. I liked him, but I found his faith not particularly attractive, restrictive and probably not true.
I joined the Liberals in my first week at sixth form. It was something which had been brewing for some months and years. Doing economics O-level helped me to – in a simplistic way – see Thatcherism as something quite wrong. I chose the Liberals because I’m a liberal – people should be able to make their own choices; you should take the side of the underdog; you should always be suspicious of people who try to impose a worldview on others, via force or what John Stuart Mill refers to as ‘the tyranny of opinion’.
I ended up in Singapore in the summer after A-levels, because my mother was a lecturer at Preston Polytechnic and got seconded. The previous tenants in our house left some Christian books behind. It struck me one evening: ‘Flipping heck, it’s true.’ And if everything Jesus said about himself is to be believed, then everything you previously thought was right was wrong, everything you thought was wrong was right, and it must be utterly lifechanging. So I put my trust in Jesus Christ, sat in a chair in my little box room in Singapore on the first couple of days in August in 1988.
If you saw Christianity as restrictive, did you find it hard to submit?
Yes, and it would be surprising if it wasn’t hard. But we’re not obedient because we’re trying to impress God or avoid punishment, we do it out of overwhelming gratitude for the fact that I’m saved 100% as a consequence of what Jesus Christ did for me on the cross, long planned before.
After I left university during my 20s, I found it so hard that I lapsed. I spent the best part of a decade not really living for Jesus Christ at all, and hiding. When I met someone else who was lapsed, both living with our girlfriends, it was like meeting a fellow fugitive in some ruin, sad and joyful at the same time. It was a little reminder that what both of us were doing was indefensible…
This is an extract from an article that was published in the September 2019 edition of Reform