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The longest hatred

Anti-Semitism is resurgent. Where did this poison come from – and is there an antidote?

Jews around the world have recently celebrated Passover, a festival commemorating the exodus of the Israelites from slavery in ancient Egypt. To mark the occasion, the BBC screened a documentary about a modern exodus, the flight of Jews from France. With an estimated 475,000 Jews, France remains home to Europe’s largest Jewish population. But in recent years, rising anti-Semitism and a series of terror attacks have forced out a growing number. As many as 8,000 left in 2014, up from 1,900 five years earlier, a fourfold increase. Most of them are moving to Israel but many are seeking refuge in Britain. French Jewish children now make up half the intake at Jewish schools in London. Anyone who has travelled recently to Paris will have seen signs of the tense atmosphere that French Jewish refugees are leaving behind. Every Jewish building is guarded by soldiers in full combat gear.

Sadly, anti-Semitism in France is only the starkest manifestation of a growing contemporary Jew-hatred in Europe and across the world. The cancerous belief that the world is run by an international Jewish conspiracy shapes the world-view of much of Iran’s governing elite, operatives of Islamic State (IS), nationalist leaders in Slovakia and Hungary, and a major Palestinian political organisation. It even pervades parts of a mainstream British political party, and our university campuses, too. Where did this poison come from, and is there an antidote to it?

 

1. European origins

Conventional religious Jew-hatred is thousands of years old. Across the Christian world, the Jews’ claim to be a “chosen people” and the accusation that Jews killed Jesus led to violent persecution. Throughout Europe, anti-Jewish pogroms were sparked by the accusation that Jews kidnapped and killed Christian children in order to use their blood for religious purposes, particularly in unleavened bread consumed on Passover. One of the earliest cases of the blood libel occurred in Norwich in 1144. Within 150 years, the entire Jewish community was expelled from England. Across Europe, Jews were confined to ghettos and restricted to certain professions, such as moneylending, inculcating an image of Jews as nefarious Shylocks.

Most European Jews were emancipated by the mid-19th century. Thereafter, a new brand of paranoid, racial, political anti-Semitism emerged. As feudal systems fell across Europe, Jews were held responsible for the social and cultural ills that accompanied the collapse of the old order. The Jews were viewed as the vanguard of the department store, which ruined small shopkeepers, of the Industrial Revolution, which gave advantage to the few at the expense of the many, and of a global financial system that enslaved economies through the market and its servant parliamentary democracy. It was in response to this new anti-Semitism, and in particular the Dreyfus affair in France, in which a Jewish army officer was falsely accused of treason amid an atmosphere of intense anti-Jewish bigotry, that Theodor Herzl developed modern Zionism – the re-establishment of a Jewish state in the Jews’ ancient homeland.

Adolf Hitler came to anti-Semitism by way of anti-capitalism, particularly of the “international”, Anglo-American variety, which he accused of reducing post-First World War Germany to the status of a “colony”. The socioeconomic decline of the German middle class after the First World War and particularly during the Great Depression helped bring him to power and make the Holocaust possible.

Jew-haters have thus built on different tropes in different contexts and countries. What unites modern anti-Semites, however, is the conspiratorial belief that Jews run the world. Its foundational text is The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. First published in a St Petersburg newspaper in 1903, and subsequently reprinted many times by Russia’s political and religious authorities, this forgery purported to be a blueprint for a secretive scheme to overthrow all existing governments, institutions and religions and, in their place, to construct a Jewish world empire.

The Protocols was neither the first nor the last publication of its kind but it was by far the most successful. After the Russian Revolution, this fabrication was brought to central and western Europe by White Russian émigrés. In the febrile atmosphere across the continent after the First World War, the Protocols offered a simplistic explanation for global unrest. The Jews served as convenient scapegoats for German and Russian right-wingers, seeking to explain their traumatic defeats, and offered an external and internal enemy against whom to rally their countrymen.

Since the Protocols first appeared, millions of copies have been published and the text has been translated into many languages. But nowhere has it been disseminated more widely in the past half-century than in the Islamic world, where political anti-Semitism is a relatively recent phenomenon.

 

2. Middle Eastern connection

Previously, the Muslim-Jewish relationship was an ambiguous one. While there are verses in Islamic scripture that some have taken as commanding all Muslim believers to kill Jews and Christians, there are also verses urging tolerance towards both.

There were pogroms against Jews in Granada (1066) and Fez (1465) in which thousands were killed. Within the Ottoman empire, however, Jews enjoyed protection as second-class citizens (dhimmis), allowed to practise their religion quietly as long as they paid a special poll tax, abided by various proscriptions, including bans on bearing arms and riding horses, and accepted their inferior status. Up until the 18th century, Jews fared far better in the Muslim world than in Christian Europe.

When anti-Jewish persecution grew more pronounced in the 19th century, responsibility often lay with Christian Arab communities, whose propagation of the European-sponsored blood libel produced the Damascus outrage of 1840 in which 13 leading Jews were arrested and four killed. It was only after the First World War, the Balfour Declaration and the establishment of European protectorates over parts of the former Ottoman empire that growing anti-Zionism provoked violence against Jews across the Arab world. Massacres of Jews occurred in Hebron (1929), Baghdad (1941) and Tripoli (1945). The Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, who resided in Germany for much of the Second World War, urged the Nazis and their allies not to allow Jews to escape to Palestine, but to send them “to Poland” (meaning Auschwitz) instead. Even before the establishment of Israel in 1948, therefore, paranoid, political anti-Semitism had gained a foothold in the Islamic world.

After 1948, anti-Semitism among Arabs was exacerbated by the defeat of their armies by a people traditionally confined to a subservient position in the Muslim world. A tragic consequence of the war was that hundreds of thousands of Palestinian Arabs fled or were expelled and, in response, hundreds of thousands of Jews from across the Arab world, members of 2,000-year-old communities, were now identified as Zionist agents, persecuted and ultimately driven to seek refuge in Israel. The Protocols, which first appeared in Arabic in 1927, and Hitler’s Mein Kampf, partially published in Arabic in the 1930s and fully in 1963, now found even more enthusiastic readers across the region. As the USSR emerged as a political ally of the Arab nations, and the United States forged closer ties with Israel after the 1967 war, Arab anti-Semites increasingly focused on the allegedly capitalist and imperialist character of world Jewry, and on Jewish control over US foreign policy.

In recent decades, this brand of anti-Semitism has become increasingly Islamised. As early as 1950, the seminal Islamist thinker and Muslim Brotherhood leader Sayyid Qutb was writing about “Our Struggle With the Jews”. Qutb claimed that “world Jewry’s purpose is to eliminate all limitations, especially the limitations posed by faith and religion, so that the Jews may penetrate into [the] body politic of the whole world and then may be free to perpetuate their evil designs”. But it was only with the failure of Arab nationalism by the late 1970s that Islamist anti-Semitism really took off.

The founding charter of Hamas, the Sunni Muslim fundamentalist organisation that governs Gaza, refers approvingly to the Protocols and quotes a disputed hadith that says: “The hour of judgment shall not come until the Muslims fight the Jews and kill them, so that the Jews hide behind trees and stones, and each tree and stone will say: ‘O Muslim, o servant of Allah, there is a Jew behind me, come and kill him.’”

The leader of the 1979 Iranian Revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini, declared in his book Islamic Government (1970) that “Jews and their foreign backers are opposed to the very foundations of Islam and wish to establish Jewish domination throughout the world”. Khomeini’s successor, Ayatollah Khamenei, often denies the Holocaust, and he and other Iranian leaders routinely refer to the global dominance of “Jewish” and “Zionist” forces – terms that they use interchangeably.

Iran’s Shia proxy, Hezbollah, has fought to keep Anne Frank’s diary out of Lebanese schools as part of a Holocaust denial campaign and its leader, Hasan Nasrallah, stated that if the Jews “all gather in Israel, it will save us the trouble of going after them worldwide”. However, this did not preclude Hezbollah from targeting a Jewish community centre in Buenos Aires (1994) or bombing Israelis on a bus in Bulgaria (2012).

Even in Malaysia, remote from Israel and home to barely any Jews, anti-Semitism is rife. In 2003 Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad urged the world’s Muslims to unite against Jews, claiming that although Europeans had killed six million of them, “today the Jews rule the world by proxy”. Just last month, Dr Fouad Bseiso, the Palestine Monetary Authority’s first governor in the 1990s, claimed on Hamas satellite TV that “global Judaism” had caused the 2008 fin­ancial crisis, fulfilling plans revealed in the Protocols. Explicit anti-Semitism is routine in Middle Eastern political discourse. At the same time, this toxic ideology is being reimported into its continent of origin and is now flourishing among disenfranchised Muslim immigrant communities in Europe.

 

3. The reimportation of anti-Semitism to Europe

The embodiment of this new anti-Semitism is the proudly anti-Zionist and Jew-baiting French “comedian” Dieudonné M’bala M’bala. His shows are particularly popular among disadvantaged French youth from immigrant backgrounds. They feature Holocaust revisionism, jokes about the gas chambers and the “quenelle”, an inverted Hitler salute that M’bala M’bala invented. M’bala M’bala also likes to refer to the Shoah as the “shoannas” (as in ananas), likening the Holocaust to a pineapple. In January, he responded to the killings of Jews at a kosher supermarket in Paris by signalling solidarity with the perpetrator, Amedy Coulibaly.

Coulibaly’s armed assault, two days after the Charlie Hebdo killings, followed a pattern that has long been evident in Islamist terror attacks. In March 2012, Mohamed ­Merah killed seven people in Toulouse. Four of his victims, including three children, were murdered at a Jewish day school. In 2014 Mehdi Nemmouche, a French national of Algerian origin, killed four visitors to the Jewish Museum in Brussels. Security services now view this as the first in a succession of attacks in Europe linked to Islamic State. Nemmouche was part of the European network set up by Abdelhamid Abaaoud, thought to have masterminded the November Paris terror attacks that left 130 dead.

Nor is this pattern evident only in Europe. One target of the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks was a Jewish centre, where hostages were tortured before being killed. After the 19 March suicide bombing in Istanbul, where three of the five victims were Israelis, intelligence offers uncovered advanced plans by IS terrorists to murder Jewish children in Turkey.

What is striking about all these attacks is that they are directed against Jews worldwide, rather than Israel itself. In part, to be sure, this reflects the Jewish state’s capacity to defend itself, but it is also a sign that these anti-Semites see themselves as engaged in a global struggle against Jewry, rather than just a regional contest against Israel.

 

4. Resurgence of fascist anti-Semitism

Though Islamist anti-Semitism is the most virulent strain of this hatred today, the old-style, fascist variant is also experiencing a revival in Europe. Far-right parties are advancing across the continent and many are directing their hatred against Muslims and Jews alike. Anti-Semitism is very pronounced in Hungary, home to the largest population of Jews in the eastern European Union. Gábor Vona, chairman of the racist Jobbik, which recent opinion polls rate as Hungary’s second-strongest party, told a rally in Budapest against the World Jewish Congress in 2013: “Israeli conquerors, investors and expansionists should look for a country in another part of the world because Hungary is not for sale.” Vona accused Hungarian “Jews” (pure and simple) of being “anti-Hungarian”. A Jobbik MP called on the Hungarian government to “establish how many people of Jewish descent there are here, and especially in the Hungarian parliament and the Hungarian government, who represent a security risk”.

Another manifestation of a far-right movement motivated by anti-Judaism, sometimes masquerading as anti-Zionism, is in Slovakia, home to a minuscule Jewish population since the Holocaust. In March, Marian Kotleba and his ultra-nationalist People’s Party Our Slovakia made a strong showing in parliamentary elections. Until recently, he wore the uniform of the Hlinka Guard – the militia of the Nazi-sponsored Slovak state – which was an eager participant in the transportation of 75,000 Slovakian Jews to the gas chambers. Kotleba’s party newspaper reprinted a Nazi propaganda cartoon featuring a stereotypical image of a Jewish moneylender. This is part of a broad attack on the West and its values. Kotleba has condemned Roma as “gypsy parasites”, denounced Nato as “criminal”, supported Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea and denounced Western democracy for spreading “dangerous sects and sexual deviations”, all standard themes of the far right across Europe.

Like Nazi ideology, Islamist extremism and far-right fascism are rooted in a deep-seated anti-Semitism that begins by targeting Jews and expands its focus outwards. Islamists and European fascists are convinced that a global Jewish conspiracy runs the world. They regard Jews as the embodiment of the West and as symbols of all they most despise about its values: tolerance, liberty, freedom and democratic capitalism. The West is thus regarded as politically “Jewish” whether it is aware of this or not.

Far from being an exclusively Jewish problem, paranoid, political anti-Semitism endangers us all. It is the harbinger of a broader assault on Western modernity.

 

5. Anti-Semitism and the left

As the heir of the Enlightenment and ideals of the French Revolution, the European left championed emancipation, equality and tolerance in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Thus, it was regarded favourably by Jews. And yet hostility to Jews animated the world-view of some pioneering socialists. For instance, the late-18th- and early-19th-century utopian socialist Charles Fourier regarded Jews as “parasites, merchants, usurers”. They were agents of capitalism and commerce, personified most powerfully by the Rothschilds. Karl Marx, even though he was of Jewish descent, claimed that Jews had made money the “God of the world” and called for humanity to be emancipated from Judaism. It was these manifestations of anti-Judaism that led the German Social Democrat August Bebel to refer to anti-Semitism as the “socialism of fools”.

That Jewish leftists were heavily represented in the leadership of the socialist and communist movement, from Trotsky down, led right-wing racists to equate Judaism with Bolshevism. At first, the Soviet Union embraced this association. In 1931 Stalin declared that anti-Semitism was “the most dangerous vestige of cannibalism” and that “under USSR law . . . active anti-Semites are liable to the death penalty”. The USSR was the first state to grant de jure recognition to Israel, and supported it with arms during the 1948 conflict. However, it turned sharply against Israel and global Jewry from the 1950s onwards.

In the early 1950s, Stalin launched a major anti-Jewish campaign that culminated in the arrest of Jewish doctors accused of poisoning Communist leaders. In 1952, he told the Politburo: “Every Jewish nationalist is the agent of the American intelligence service.” America was the USSR’s principal enemy in the Cold War and its sizeable Jewish community was believed to be at the centre of a worldwide network that was doing the bidding of the new Israeli state, and which had operatives across the globe, including the USSR and communist-controlled eastern Europe.

This anti-Semitic, anti-Zionist campaign was taken up throughout the communist world. Its anti-Jewish nature was clear in the show trials of Jews and their removal from critical positions in local Communist Parties, accompanied by a barrage of openly anti-Semitic propaganda. The most notorious instance of this was the 1952 Slansky trial in Czechoslovakia, during which the state denounced the defendants, not all of whom were Jewish, as “Zionists”, “Jewish capitalists” and “Jewish Gestapo agents”.

After Stalin’s death, his successors upheld his legacy of conspiratorial, anti-Semitic anti-Zionism. Soviet propaganda portrayed “Zionism” as both a tool and a puppet master of US imperialism, peddled the delusion that a state established by Jews fleeing genocidal racism was in fact a Western colonialist enterprise, and depicted “Zionists” as the ideological heirs of Nazi Germany, controlling financial markets and the media. These calumnies were uncritically circulated by the communist press in Europe and seeped into the ideology of Soviet sympathisers on the socialist left. The residue of this can be seen in the former Labour parliamentary candidate Vicki Kirby’s suggestion that Hitler was “the Zionist God” and the Trotskyist former Labour member Gerry Downing’s contention that a capitalist offensive against workers is led by “the Jewish-Zionist bourgeoisie”.

Soviet-sponsored anti-Semitism was reinforced by a third-world romanticism that regarded Zionism as reactionary imperialism and the Arab opponents of Israel as progressive fighters for national liberation who could never be condemned, however radical their rhetoric and tactics.

Western extreme leftists attended Palestinian terror training camps and participated in attacks against Israelis and European Jews. In 1976, operatives from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and members of the German Revolutionary Cells hijacked an Air France flight and diverted it to Entebbe. They released all non-Jewish passengers and held all Israelis and other Jews of various nationalities hostage.

Conspiratorial leftist, anti-Semitic anti-Zionism did not disappear with the collapse of the USSR. Instead, it mutated into an anti-globalist variant, maintaining the belief that Israel is a vestige of Western colonialism and that “Zionists” are behind the spread of global capitalism, run US foreign policy and seek world domination. The extent to which this poisonous perspective is thriving on British university campuses is illustrated by Malia Bouattia’s election as president of the National Union of Students (NUS). Bouattia has called the University of Birmingham a “Zionist outpost”, on the grounds that it has “the largest J-Soc [Jewish Society] in the country”. While serving as the NUS’s national black students’ officer, she refused to vote for a motion condemning IS and blamed UK anti-terrorism policy on a “Zionist and neocon lobby”.

Further evidence of left-wing anti-Semitism emerged when it was reported that the Labour MP for Bradford West, Naz Shah, until 26 April a PPS to the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, and a member of a parliamentary select committee investigating British anti-Semitism, had urged the “transportation” of Israeli Jews to America en masse. Shah was consequently suspended from the Labour Party.

Unlike Islamist and far-right extremists, most of the “anti-Zionist” left does not think of itself subjectively as anti-Semitic; many would be appalled at the suggestion. They are often uncomprehending of the nature of Middle Eastern and Islamist anti-Semitism, as evidenced by Vicki Kirby wondering on Twitter why IS had not yet attacked “the real oppressors #Israel”.

One wonders what is more remarkable here: the spectacle of a member of a mainstream Western party handing out white feathers to an extreme Islamist terror group, or her failure to understand that it is primarily waging a global war on Jews and the West, not a regional struggle against Israel. One way or the other, leftist elements who speak of the “Zionist media”, conflate Jews with Israel and generally obsess about Palestine exhibit a structurally anti-Semitic world-view, whether they are conscious of it or not. It is striking that those who spend so much time talking about “discourses”, “dog-whistle politics” and suchlike should show so little sensitivity when it comes to the use of language about Israel, Zionism and the Jews.

All this shows that much of the British student left, and parts of the Labour Party, have “some kind of problem with Jews”, as Alex Chalmers stated when resigning as co-chair of the Oxford University Labour Club in February 2016. A coalition of apparently anti-racist, anti-colonial activists is united in its unwavering hostility to “Zionism”. They demand that Jews and only Jews give up their national self-determination, for the belief in the right to a Jewish state is all that the term “Zionism” means.

The absurdity of anti-racist anti-Semitism is perhaps most clearly demonstrated by a march in 2014 in Toulouse against anti-Semitism, homophobia and other forms of racism that ended in Jewish protesters being denounced as Zionists and urged to leave. When Jews are being chased away from rallies against anti-Semitism, the problem should be clear for all to see.

 

6. An antidote?

Dealing with anti-Semitism has become more difficult since 1945, after the mass murder of the Holocaust, as few anti-Semites, at least in Europe, are now willing to wear that label openly. Anti-Semitism is a virus that has taken so many forms and proved so resistant that it may be impossible ever to eradicate it. Yet we must begin by recognising that anti-Semitism is a world-view, rather than just another form of prejudice. Other groups – such as black people and gypsies – may suffer worse discrimination in European societies every day. Nobody, however, thinks that black people or gypsies run the world.

After the Charlie Hebdo and kosher supermarket attacks, the BBC correspondent Tim Willcox put it to a terrified Jewish woman that a possible explanation for the slaughter was that “Palestinians suffer hugely at Jewish hands”. Leaving aside that no action taken by Israel could justify the killing of Jews merely because they are Jews – in Paris or anywhere else in the world – it is clear that the murders were motivated not simply by a particular reading of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but by a paranoid, conspiratorial anti-Semitism.

We must ensure that expressing solidarity for the Palestinian cause does not extend to sharing platforms, joining coalitions or marching in rallies that include anyone who justifies genocidal terrorism, invokes the blood libel or denies the Holocaust. We must reject cultural and moral relativism, and establish a new intellectual and political project committed to combating conspiratorial views of Jewish power, whoever expresses them.

We must make clear that the establishment of the state of Israel was a product of global, especially European, anti-Semitism and not the other way round.

We must recognise that, throughout history, the Jews have served as a “canary in the coal mine”, providing early warnings of extreme, xenophobic ideologies on the rise. This is evident in radical Islamism, the most extreme contemporary manifestation of anti-Semitism. While the West thinks it is fighting a war against “terrorism”, Islamists are fighting a war against what they perceive to be a world Jewish conspiracy. Islamist terror attacks are almost certain to be preceded by, involve, or be followed by attacks on Jews, and we must adjust our ­security measures accordingly.

Above all, we must all be aware of the stakes. Supporting Jewish people worldwide against the new anti-Semitism, be it Islamist, far-rightist or leftist, is not so much a matter of demonstrating solidarity, but of ensuring our own survival.

Although the French government has increased security at Jewish institutions, it is clear that governments alone cannot make Jews feel safe in France or elsewhere in Europe. Moreover, with Dieudonné and his ilk claiming that attacking Jews is the best way to harm the “establishment”, some say that governmental protection only stokes their paranoia. Well, as C P Snow said, the only way to deal with a paranoid man is to give him something to be paranoid about. Other European countries must follow France’s example and devote additional security resources to the defence of Jewish institutions across the continent. They must eschew the example of Belgium, where the authorities asked the Jewish community to drop Purim celebrations, pleading insufficient manpower to protect them after the Brussels attacks in March. The symbolism of the “Great Synagogue of Europe” in the political capital of our continent cancelling service
on a major Jewish holiday was shattering.

By dedicating themselves to defending Jewish institutions across the country, the French security authorities have shown that they recognise that paranoid anti-Semitism is a threat to civilised values everywhere. As soon as the rest of the world wakes up to this, and ensures that Jews never again have to flee persecution, the safer we will all be.

Brendan Simms is the director of the Forum on Geopolitics at the University of Cambridge and the president of the Project for Democratic Union

Charlie Laderman is a research fellow at Peterhouse, University of Cambridge. He is the author of “Sharing the Burden: Armenia and the Origins of Anglo-American Humanitarian Intervention, 1895-1923”, forthcoming from Oxford University Press

Note: This article was amended on 12 May. An earlier version wrongly stated that the Quran commands Muslims to kill Jews and Christians and that the Hamas charter quotes a Quranic verse urging Muslims to “fight the Jews and kill them”. These quotations are from the hadith.

This article first appeared in the 05 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The longest hatred

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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