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“I’m roadkill”: Tim Farron on how he was chewed up and spat out by liberalism

“Liberalism is eating itself.”

“When a firmly left-of-centre liberal turns out to be an evangelical Christian, that is surprising. And it shouldn’t be.”

Tim Farron has emerged from a bruising election campaign. The former Lib Dem leader is munching on some crisps in the corner of an opulent oak-panelled lecture hall on London’s Chancery Lane, where he will later address an audience with a punchy speech about how being a practising Christian is now seen as “dangerous”.

In a smart suit and navy knitted tie, he is energetic and talkative – thrilled to be stating views about religion that had “come back to bite him” when he had been party president and leader. He seems more relaxed as a backbencher, claiming that he doesn’t “want to be leader again or anything like that, so [I] feel a bit more liberated to say these things, I think they need to be said”. Hence this intervention, hosted by the Theos religious think tank.

Leading his party through the snap election earlier this year, Farron was less at ease with himself. He was stung when his voting record and faith plunged what was supposed to be a pro-European campaign into constant requests to clarify his stance on whether gay sex is a sin.

Eventually, he stated that he does not see it as sinful (and said he had held back from responding because his job was “not to pontificate on theological matters”), but that wasn’t before avoiding the question numerous times. In particular, his response to Cathy Newman on Channel 4 News that “we are all sinners” in 2015 haunted him in multiple television interviews during this year’s campaign.

He is still considering how he handled the question now. “Could I, earlier on in my leadership, in a sort of less rabbit-in-the-headlights sort of way, have addressed these issues in better detail? I’d be surprised. That would’ve caused more trouble than anything else,” he reflects. “That doesn’t mean I handled it well – at times I think I did, at times I think I didn’t. If I was a rabbit-in-the-headlights, I’m now roadkill, so I don’t care!”

Farron was asked such questions because of his voting record. He abstained on the equal marriage bill’s third reading in 2013 (something he now regrets), having also been in the minority opposing the bill’s timetable, and voted against the Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations – the legislation obliging wedding cake makers and B&B hosts not to discriminate against gay people – in 2007. He’s since changed his mind on that too.

After becoming Lib Dem leader in 2015, Farron anticipated scrutiny of his past stance. He spoke up for LGBT rights, and also revised some of his former voting decisions, expressing his regrets in an exclusive interview to PinkNews in May 2015. He has also voted a number of times in favour of gay marriage.

But this wasn’t enough for voters. For those put off by Labour’s equivocal Brexit stance and the Conservatives’ hardline approach to Europe, the Lib Dems were no longer the obvious choice – their leader was tainted by accusations of homophobia from the very start of the campaign.

As I reported at the time, this frustrated senior figures in the party, who felt they could have had a better run in the election if it weren’t for this distraction.

After the election result, which resulted in a distinct lack of anti-Brexit bounce for the Lib Dems, Farron stood down from his post, stating:

“To be a political leader – especially of a progressive, liberal party in 2017 – and to live as a committed Christian, to hold faithfully to the Bible’s teaching, has felt impossible for me.”

Farron’s decision to resign in such a manner split his supporters, with some citing it as an example of the decay of liberalism, while others claimed he was wrong to suggest it was his faith that was incompatible with leadership.

More than five months on, though, the MP for Westmorland and Lonsdale blames modern-day liberalism for both his experience as “an uncomfortable case study” and in general for what he sees as “intolerance” of dissenting ideas and values. His theory is that liberalism is “eating itself” by not allowing others with a different view to voice their opinions.

“If we can’t accept competing world views, then we aren’t liberals,” he says, emphasising that “liberalism is underpinned by Christianity”.

He finds it frustrating that as a society we “lazily” associate atheism with neutrality, and even puts Christianity above other faiths when it comes to a liberal outlook. “There is something about Christianity which is specifically valuing everybody as being of equal dignity,” he says. “You can say it’s an accident, but you look around the world and those societies with a Christian heritage, imperfect as they’ve been, the longest and the most stable democracies are the liberal democracies – there’s a very strong correlation.”

Of course, no discussion of liberalism today comes without the phrase “liberal elite”. Farron insists that while he’s liberal, he’s not in the elite. But how can he say that, as someone who has been an MP for over a decade, and a party leader at that?

“First of all, I don’t move in any elite circles, I just happen to go to Parliament,” he says. “I am a working-class lad from Lancashire who now lives in Cumbria, I don’t feel part of the elite.

“But if you wanted to observe that I’m a whining Remoaner who is a member of Parliament, that would certainly put you in a Venn diagram where there would be members of the elite, I get it!”

It wasn’t just the election that made Farron lament the state of liberalism. As a student, shortly after he became a Christian at 18 (he wasn’t from a particularly religious family), he noticed the “intolerance of people who are on the liberal left” when doing student politics.

He finds people like Germaine Greer, Peter Tatchell and Richard Dawkins being “no-platformed” at universities today “really worrying”, and accuses social media of “corrall[ing] a groupthink, a pack mentality, and it fuels deliberate misunderstanding”.

Farron jokes that now he’s no longer leader he can have fun taking on “the trolls”. Yet it’s clear that his experience trying to marry his faith with electoral politics has cut him quite deeply. “To be called hateful was hurtful,” he tells me. “People have got into the habit of leaping to condemn, never seeking to understand. My grandmother used to say, ‘Tim, you’ve got two ears and one gob – use them in those proportions.’”

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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South Africa’s new dawn: How Jacob Zuma’s misrule was ended

“We are going to look back at the past ten years and think of it as a lost decade.”

On the afternoon of 13 February, as South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma was recalled by his party, the African National Congress (ANC), a popular Johannesburg radio station began receiving calls about a peculiar incident.

A truck had lost its load along the M2 highway and people were scurrying to pick up what they believed to be tiny nuggets of unprocessed gold. The highway became congested as motorists pulled over to join the search. Even for a city that rose from the dust of a gold rush, this was a bizarre scene.

The first radio caller was giddy with excitement, as was the second. The third did what South Africans do best: he made light of an otherwise confusing and anxious day in the young nation’s history. “It’s manna from heaven,” the caller said. “Zuma’s just been recalled and already the roads are paved in gold.” Nine years into the president’s disastrous rule, South Africans had not lost their sense of humour – and were awaiting a new dawn. The police cleared the scene along the M2, no one proclaimed a worthy find and the nation returned to waiting for Zuma’s next move.

Technically, the president did not have to resign as head of state, despite the opposition of the ANC, the proud liberation movement turned ruling party that Zuma led for a decade until December 2017. Realistically, he had no options left.

With an overwhelming majority in parliament, the ANC was ready to table a motion of no confidence the next day. Defiant to the end, these final hours on the eve of Valentine’s Day were Zuma’s last stand.

They called him the “unstoppable tsunami” and with good reason. Zuma damaged South Africa and the ANC in ways only history will fully capture. He wrecked a country struggling to rebuild itself under the shadow of apartheid. Under his rule, the economy stagnated, unemployment rose, poverty grew, violent crime spiked and corruption became endemic.

“South Africa was headed in the wrong direction,” says Mmusi Maimane, leader of the Democratic Alliance, the official opposition, which governs in cities including Johannesburg and Cape Town. “We are going to look back at the past ten years and think of it as a lost decade,” the political analyst Stephen Grootes concludes.

Zuma lurched from one scandal to the next. He was acquitted of rape, avoided almost 800 corruption charges for over a decade and nearly crashed the economy by recklessly firing a respected finance minister. Taxpayers were misled over exorbitant upgrades to his private mansion (a swimming pool was defended as a fire-fighting feature) and his friendship with the controversial Gupta family placed him at the heart of what became known as “state capture”: the looting of state coffers through the corruption of senior government officials.

“State and independent institutions were repurposed for the enrichment and protection of Jacob Zuma,” says political commentator Justice Malala. “He went through the guts of the framework, pulled out the institutions he needed and systematically broke them down or took away their independence.”

The institutions ranged from the tax revenue service to the public broadcaster, from the police to the prosecuting authority, and from the intelligence services to crucial industries such as mining.

Although constitutionally barred from governing beyond 2019, Zuma was widely believed to have engineered a plan to hold on to power (and avoid prosecution) through his ex-wife, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, who was campaigning to take over from him. By December, when the ANC met to pick its next leader, who would go on to become the country’s president in 2019, a mood of despair and hopelessness had set in.

The race was close. In the end, 179 votes out of nearly 5,000 cast separated Dlamini-Zuma from her challenger, Cyril Ramaphosa, a former union leader and businessman who had campaigned on an anti-corruption and pro-growth platform.

Ramaphosa’s victory in mid-December was a turning point. It removed the prospect of Zuma’s continued rule, began an instant shift in political power and sparked a moment of renewed hope. Ramaphosa had his own controversies, but was viewed as largely incorruptible. He had risen through the trade unions, served the ANC and built his wealth in the private sector. 

Following Ramaphosa’s election, the extent of state capture emerged through superb investigative journalism.

Politically driven prosecutions fell away, a hugely unpopular nuclear energy deal with Russia was frozen and, as Zuma was being recalled, police cars arrived outside the home of the Gupta family.

And yet, the president refused to leave the Union Buildings quietly, prompting comparisons with Margaret Thatcher. “He was the worst possible combination of ignorance, selfishness and incompetence that could have been inflicted upon the long-suffering people of South Africa,” read an editorial in the Daily Maverick on 13 February. “Now, stripped to the bare essence of being Zuma, the final image emerges, one of the selfish man who cared only for himself.”

Journalist Richard Poplak concluded: “What is born in chaos dies in chaos.”

 Zuma’s departure allows for the rebuilding to begin. The role played by the media, civil society – which found its voice during the Zuma years – and the judiciary (particularly the constitutional court) is being recognised. New president Ramaphosa delivered an inspiring state of the nation address the day after being sworn in.

“You can survive bad leadership, but what you won’t survive is bad institutions,” Mmusi Maimane told me.

There are no delusions over the epic challenges ahead. Unemployment is at 27 per cent (and is much higher for young, black South Africans) and GDP growth is stranded at 1 per cent. However, there is optimism, too: the “lost decade” is over and the Rainbow Nation’s renewal has finally begun. 

This article first appeared in the 22 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia