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Tim Farron's resignation symbolises the decay of liberalism

Western liberalism owes an incalculable amount to Christianity, much more so than most modern liberals know or care to admit. 

Some will claim that Tim Farron’s resignation yesterday shows that Christians in the Britain can no longer hold high political office. It doesn’t. What it does show, however, is something potentially more worrying: the decay of liberalism.

Farron needn’t have resigned. The Liberal Democrats did passably well and the cause of softening Brexit, so dear to Farron’s heart, has suddenly looked much brighter. But the Lib Dem leader chose to go and he chose to go by emphasising the impossibility, as he saw it of being a political leader “especially of a progressive, liberal party” and living “as a committed Christian”.

The irony of this is painful and deep. As the intellectual historian Larry Siedentop, among others, has demonstrated at length, Western liberalism owes an incalculable amount to Christianity, much more so than most modern liberals know or care to admit. Similarly, as legal scholar Jeremy Waldron has argued, the concept of equality, so deeply entrenched in the liberal worldview, is not easily separated from its Christian origins

Another view: Tim Farron's resignation speech was awful - but he was a friend to Lib Dem LGBT members

In a different register, the Liberal Party in Britain was almost the creation of William Gladstone, probably the most devout Prime Minister in national history. The party was powered by noncomformists during its heyday. Its greatest victory, in 1906, was won on the back of the 181 nonconformist MPs who sat for the party in parliament.

For an idea and a party so closely tied with Christianity to become hostile to it is unfortunate, and possibly short-sighted. But it is also vaguely worrying.

Liberalism is many things – attempts to define it usually end up confusing the matter – but it does have one clearly identifiable fault line running through it. This was well-described by John Gray in his “two faces of liberalism”. On the one face, it is “theory of a universal rational consensus”, a substantive, even comprehensive idea of what it is to live well. On the other, it is a way of recognising and then managing deep difference, tolerating other people and their views, and securing as much space as possible for people to pursue their own visions of the good.

Tim Farron was the latter – modus vivendi – kind of liberal. This explains his emphasis, in his resignation speech, on being “passionate about defending the rights and liberties of people who believe different things to me”. But it seems that the party, or at least certain influential parts thereof, is increasingly of the former – muscular – kind of liberalism.

This isn’t a problem with the Liberal Democrats specifically. A few years ago, the Green party in Brighton dismissed a Christian counsellor for speaking against gay marriage in a debate when the bill was going through parliament. It was apparently unacceptable for her to put forward her opinion in open debate.

It’s clearly a problem with liberalism in general, as it forgets its intellectual and political origins and turns away from its modus vivendi face, and towards its muscular, even dogmatic, one.

There will never be a satisfactory resolution between these different kinds of liberalism, both of which are legitimate in their own way. There is, after all, no liberal magisterium to define its doctrines - yet. Tim Farron’s experience and his resignation exposes how one "face" is dominant - and becoming increasingly intolerant. What profit liberalism, we might ask, if it gains a whole political culture and yet loses its own soul in the process?

Nick Spencer is Research Director at Theos and the editor of The Mighty and the Almighty: how political leaders do God (Biteback Publishing).


Arsène Wenger. Credit: Getty
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My biggest regret of the Wenger era? How we, the fans, treated him at the end

Arsenal’s greatest coach deserved better treatment from the Club’s supporters. 

I have no coherent memories of Arsenal before Arsène Wenger, who will leave the Club at the end of the season. I am aware of the Club having a new manager, but my continuous memories of my team are of Wenger at the helm.

They were good years to remember: three league titles, seven FA Cups, the most of any single manager in English football. He leaves the Club as the most successful manager in its history.

I think one of the reasons why in recent years he has taken a pasting from Arsenal fans is that the world before him now seems unimaginable, and not just for those of us who can't really remember it. As he himself once said, it is hard to go back to sausages when you are used to caviar, and while the last few years cannot be seen as below par as far as the great sweep of Arsenal’s history goes, they were below par by the standards he himself had set. Not quite sausages, but not caviar either.

There was the period of financial restraint from 2005 onwards, in which the struggle to repay the cost of a new stadium meant missing out on top player. A team that combined promising young talent with the simply bang-average went nine years without a trophy. Those years had plenty of excitement: a 2-1 victory over Manchester United with late, late goals from Robin van Persie and Thierry Henry, a delicious 5-2 thumping of Tottenham Hotspur, and races for the Champions League that went to the last day. It was a time that seemed to hold the promise a second great age of Wenger once the debt was cleared. But instead of a return to the league triumphs of the past, Wenger’s second spree of trophy-winning was confined to the FA Cup. The club went from always being challenging for the league, to always finishing in the Champions League places, to struggling to finish in the top six. Again, nothing to be sniffed at, but short of his earlier triumphs.

If, as feels likely, Arsenal’s dire away form means the hunt for a Uefa Cup victory ends at Atletico Madrid, many will feel that Wenger missed a trick in not stepping down after his FA Cup triumph over Chelsea last year, in one of the most thrilling FA Cup Finals in years. (I particularly enjoyed this one as I watched it with my best man, a Chelsea fan.) 

No one could claim that this season was a good one, but the saddest thing for me was not the turgid performances away from home nor the limp exit from the FA Cup, nor even finishing below Tottenham again. It was hearing Arsenal fans, in the world-class stadium that Wenger built for us, booing and criticising him.

And I think, that, when we look back on Wenger’s transformation both of Arsenal and of English football in general, more than whether he should have called it a day a little earlier, we will wonder how Arsenal fans could have forgotten the achievements of a man who did so much for us.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.