Franny Armstrong - extended interview

A longer version of this week's NS interview

Do you vote?
Of course I vote!

How optimistic are you feeling about solving the challenge of climate change?
Earlier generations managed to solve the big issues of their time, like slavery or apartheid. And there is nothing stopping us - no technology or knowledge - other than ourselves. The past 30 years we've known about this problem, and now we're right at the end of the time when we can still do something. I'm very optimistic because of the number of people across all sections of society who are realising this and are focusing all of their energies on it.

Do you think it all hangs on Copenhagen?
The only chance is an international deal. Nothing else can do it and Copenhagen is when they are supposed to make the deal. If they fail to make an international deal that's as strong as the science demands, then we're up shit creek.

What's next?
On 1 January, the 10:10 campaign kicks in. Whatever happens at Copenhagen, whether the politicians succeed or fail, the people and businesses of Britain are going to start cutting their emissions. Understanding climate change and how close to the cliff-edge we are, I couldn't work on anything else. It would be like rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic.

If you weren't doing this, what would you do?
I could never be a politician because I can't stand the process, but politicians are the ones who get to decide. I would also like to do little things, like getting water fountains installed in Tube stations to encourage people not to buy plastic bottles. I would have liked to be a music producer, in a studio recording music and tweaking drums. Basically, I want to have ten lives so I can do ten different things at the same time.

How do you find time to do everything?
I get bored very easily. I don't want to sit in the pub or watch TV. I was always making up schemes when I was younger - let's put on a pop concert, or get all the teachers to stop driving. Also, I feel very lucky that I have been born in this era, in a great family, with good health. I remember telling a school careers adviser: I want to direct a play, I want to make a feature film, I want to write a book. They said "Jesus, you can't do all that". But we don't have any limits. We are the most privileged who will ever live because everybody who comes after will have to deal with climate change. And for everyone before us, it was a lot harder.

Why don't we all do more about climate change?
I think that nobody wants to cause climate change. It's a mixture of our whole society being set up wrong and laziness. Put those two factors together and it all goes pear shaped. But if I had to pick one fundamental problem with climate change, I would say it's the time-lag. It's the 30 years between what we do and what happens as a result of what we do. And that's an intellectual challenge.

What made you an environmentalist?
My grandmother never used to throw things away. She would say there are only a certain amount of things in the world and so we have to share them. That's the core of environmentalism. We have to use only what we need and consider other people. I argued against her, because she used to shout at me for ripping all the wrapping paper off the presents. But she was clearly right, and I guessed I should change.

Do you argue a lot?
Yes. With my best friends I argue all the time.

Is there a plan?
There isn't a plan. You don't get long in terms of your working life. You only have a short period when you don't have that many responsibilities and you have all your faculties, meaning you have to be fairly young and energetic to push all these kind of projects. So you have about 20 years and I've always felt like I don't want to waste those 20 years doing something pointless. I want to do really good, high-quality stuff, whether that's a film or a campaign or whatever.

Does activism work?
You only have to look at history to see that it does. Nobody can argue that the US civil rights movement didn't work, or that Gandhi didn't work. A lot of people are looking for excuses not to change their lives, and that's one of them. We'll just ignore them.

Do you feel the responsibility of being seen as a leader?
The McLibel defendant, Helen Steel, told me, it's not that she feels brilliant that she did McLibel, but she knows how bad she would have felt if she hadn't, and if she had apologised to McDonald's. And that's kind of the same for me. I have to do this. I have to fight as hard as I can to prevent our species getting wiped out. And if other people think that's good, then I'm glad.

Do you think about climate change all the time?
Yes, but I don't get frustrated, because I am a glass-half-full person. I'm inspired by the people who are working on it. I almost forget that 99 per cent of the population don't give a shit, or that 99 per cent of the population is ignoring the problem.

Will you ever feel like you have done enough?
I feel like I have done enough now, I feel like I have made a good contribution. And if I got hit by a bus tomorrow, I would feel like I did well, which is a profoundly good feeling that I've never had before. My whole life I've been feeling like I want to help, and now I feel I've done something. One of my motivations for working so hard is that I'll hate myself if, when I'm old, I think I stood by. If you stand by and let something happen, you are responsible, too.

Do you have time in your life for anything else?
We are thinking of restarting our singing bar. Karaoke, but around the piano. We used to have that but we had to put it on hold to make The Age of Stupid. But we're going to get it back, at Copenhagen actually! To keep the delegates amused. And we have a football team.

Is there anything you regret?
Only tiny things. We've made mistakes along the way, but I couldn't have done it with a more inspiring group of people.

Are we all doomed?
No. The scientists tell us - the peer-reviewed climate scientists, not the oil industry scientists - that there is still time from a science point of view. But nine out of ten of them don't think that the politics is going to pull it together. And that's where everybody needs to pitch in. At the moment, we, as in humanity, are not going to save ourselves.

Ralph Steadman for the New Statesman.
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Tim Farron: Theresa May is "the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party"

The Liberal Democrat leader on his faith, Blairism and his plan to replace Labour as the opposition. 

This is Tim Farron’s seventh general election. His first was in 1992, when his Tory opponent was a 36-year-old called Ther­esa May. He was just 21 and they were both unsuccessful candidates in the Labour fortress of North-West Durham. He recalls talking “to a bunch of ex-miners who weren’t best pleased to see either of us, some kid Liberal and some Tory”. Now he sees his former and current opponent as “the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party . . . I think it has rendered Ukip almost pointless – she is Ukip now.”

May was elected to parliament in 1997, but it took Farron until 2005 to join her. She leads the dominant Conservatives while he heads a party of only nine Liberal Democrat MPs. Still, their reversal of fortunes gives him hope. “After the 1992 election, every­one said there’s no way for a non-Tory government, and it turned out there was. So let’s not assume it’s a given there’s a Tory government [for ever].”

In April, I accompanied Farron to Manchester Gorton, in the lead-up to a by-election that was cancelled by May’s decision to call a snap election on 8 June. Still, the 46-year-old’s party has been in campaign mode for months; Lib Dems spoke of using last December’s Richmond Park by-election to test their messaging. It clearly had an effect: the incumbent Conservative, Zac Goldsmith, lost to their candidate, Sarah Olney.

Brexit, to which the Liberal Democrats are vehemently opposed, will be a dominant theme of the election. Their party membership has just exceeded 100,000, close to an all-time high, and they have enjoyed much success in council by-elections, with more to come in the local elections of 4 May.

However, any feel-good factor swiftly evaporated when Farron appeared on Channel 4 News on 18 April. He was asked by the co-presenter Cathy Newman whether or not he believes that homosexuality is a sin, a question that he answered obliquely in 2015 by saying that Christianity started with acknowledging that “we’re all sinners”.

This time, he told Newman, he was “not in the position to make theological announcements over the next six weeks . . . as a Liberal, I’m passionate about equality”.

The Channel 4 interview divided opinion. One Liberal politician told me that Farron’s stance was “completely intolerable”. Stephen Pollard, the influential editor of the Jewish Chronicle, described it as
“a very liberal position: he holds certain personal views but does not wish to legislate around them”. Jennie Rigg, the acting chair of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats, said it was “as plain as the nose on my face that Tim Farron is no homophobe”.

Farron declined the chance to clarify his views with us in a follow-up phone call, but told the BBC on 25 April: “I don’t believe that gay sex is a sin,” adding, “On reflection, it makes sense to actually answer this direct question since it’s become an issue.”

For his critics, Farron’s faith and politics are intertwined. He sees it differently, as he told Christian Today in 2015: “. . . the danger is sometimes that as a Christian in politics you think your job is to impose your morality on other people. It absolutely isn’t.”

Tim Farron joined the then Liberal Party at the age of 16 but didn’t become a Christian until he was 18. Between completing his A-levels in Lancashire and going to Newcastle University to read politics, he read the apologetics, a body of Christian writing that provides reasoned arguments for the gospel story. “I came to the conclusion that it was true,” he told me. “It wasn’t just a feel-good story.”

In speeches, Farron now takes on the mannerisms of a preacher, but he had a largely non-religious upbringing in Preston, Lancashire. “I don’t think I’d been to church once other than Christmas or the odd wedding,” he says. “I went once with my dad when I was 11, for all the good that did me.”

When we meet, it is Theresa May’s religion that is in the spotlight. She has condemned the National Trust for scrubbing the word “Easter” from its Easter egg hunt, a row it later emerged had been largely invented by the right-wing press in response to a press release from a religious-themed chocolate company.

“It’s worth observing there’s no mention of chocolate or bunny rabbits in the Bible,” Farron reminds me. “When people get cross about, in inverted commas, ‘us losing our Christian heritage’ they mean things which are safe and comfortable and nostalgic.” He pauses. “But the Christian message at Easter is shocking, actually, and very radical.”

British politics is tolerant of atheists (such as Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg) alongside those who, like David Cameron, are culturally Christian but whose faith is “a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes”. But the reaction to Farron’s equivocation on homosexuality prompted many to wonder if a politician who talks openly about his faith is now seen as alarming. Nebulous wishes of peace and love at Christmas, yes; sincere discussions of the literal truth of the Resurrection? Hmm.

Tim Farron’s beliefs matter because he has a mission: to replace not only Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition but Theresa May in Downing Street. Over lassis at the MyLahore curry house in Manchester, he tells me that Britain is facing two calamities. “One is Brexit, indeed hard Brexit . . . and the other is a Tory government for 25 years. We have to present a genuine, progressive alternative that can not only replace Labour as an opposition, it can replace the Tories as a government.” This is ambitious talk for a party with nine MPs. “I understand the ridicule that will be thrown at me for saying those things: but if you don’t want to run the country, why are you in politics?” He pauses. “That’s a question I would ask most people leading the Labour Party at present.”

What does he think of May, his one-time opponent in North-West Durham? “She strikes me as being very professional, very straightforward, somebody who is very conservative in every sense of the word, in her thought processes, her politics, in her style.” He recalls her 2002 conference speech in which she warned Tory activists: “Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us: the nasty party.”

“In many ways, she was the trailblazer for Cameron in being a softer-focused Tory,” he says. “It now looks like she’s been trapped by the very people she was berating as the nasty party all those years ago. I like to think that isn’t really her. But that means she isn’t really in control of the Conservative Party.”

Voters, however, seem to disagree. In recent polls, support for the Conservatives has hovered between 40 and 50 per cent. Isn’t a progressive alliance the only way to stop her: Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru all working together to beat the Tories?

“Let’s be really blunt,” he says. “Had Jeremy Corbyn stood down for us in Richmond Park [where Labour stood Christian Wolmar], we would not have won. I could have written Zac Goldsmith’s leaflets for you: Corbyn-backed Liberal Democrats.

“I’m a pluralist,” he adds. “But any progressive alliance has got to be at least equal to the sum of its parts. At the moment, it would be less than the sum of its parts. The only way the Tories are losing their majority is us gaining seats in Hazel Grove –” he ticks them off with his fingers, “– in Cheadle, in the West Country and west London. There’s no chance of us gaining those seats if we have a kind of arrangement with the current Labour Party in its current form.”

What about the SNP? “Most sensible people would look at that SNP manifesto and agree with 99 per cent of it,” Farron says. “But it’s that one thing: they want to wreck the country! How can you do a deal with people who want to wreck the country?”

There’s no other alternative, he says. Someone needs to step up and offer “something that can appeal to progressive younger voters, pro-Europeans and, you know, moderate-thinking Middle England”. He wants to champion a market economy, strong public services, action on climate change, internationalism and free trade.

That sounds like Blairism. “I’m a liberal, and I don’t think Blair was a liberal,” he replies. “But I admire Blair because he was somebody who was able to win elections . . . Iraq aside, my criticisms of Blair are what he didn’t do, rather than what he did do.”

Turning around the Tory tide – let alone with just nine MPs, and from third place – is one hell of a job. But Farron takes heart from the Liberal Party in Canada, where Justin Trudeau did just that. “I’m not Trudeau,” he concedes, “He was better-looking, and his dad was prime minister.”

There is a reason for his optimism. “I use the analogy of being in a maze,” he says, “You can’t see a way out of it, for a progressive party to form a majority against the Tories. But in every maze, there is a way out. We just haven’t found it yet.” 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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