Bertrand Russell once advised his audience against smiting the then Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin on the basis that his description of himself as a sincere Christian was little guarantee that any prime minister would take their commandment to ‘Turn the other Cheek’ strictly literally. Similarly, Tim Farron’s Anglicanism has the potential to be the source of some controversy in the next couple of months. However if he wishes to become prime minister, in that regard he is in good company. Our last two prime ministers, Cameron and May, made sure to be seen attending worship on Sundays, while also keeping the nature of their personal beliefs outside of the sphere of public interest. However, Farron’s personal and strikingly sincere faith seems to have rocked the boat, largely due to the controversy over what he thinks of same-sex relationships.
Support for same sex marriage in Britain is hard to quantify, but a 2013 YouGov poll found that changing the law to recognise same sex marriage had a baseline support of 54%, which seems to have only increased, with the highest estimates reaching up to 71% today. Unlike the Church we like our prime ministers to belong to, we as a nation like them to be in favour of same sex marriage. Many officials in the Church of England would agree with me that enabling same-sex marriage is in the domain of the ‘cultural Christians’, so when the British public is faced with an Anglican that may align with the Anglican Church, we’re not quite sure what to do with ourselves. We are used to the comforts of a leader that simultaneously protects us against the ‘Political Correctness’ brigade’s ‘attack on Easter’ but approves of everything that we disagree on with the Church itself.
It was wise for Farron to signal his support for same-sex marriage early in the race. Although his track record when it comes to political support of LGBT rights is largely good, his unwillingness to disclose his ‘irrelevant’ personal views was a thorn in his side as leader of a party consistently on one side of this issue. One might suspect that hiding behind an aversion to making ‘theological pronouncements’ suggests that for Farron, no clear answer would be politically expedient. However, he quick-wittedly made a breakthrough overnight that he could not previously manage in two years, declaring in the house of commons ‘I do not think it is a sin’. Unfortunately, he hasn’t been able to drive this home by declaring any act of love between two people of the same sex entirely kosher and opponents such as John McDonnell have been quick to jump on this.
Whether Farron is being bludgeoned into shape for the top role, or the moral irrelevance of the sex of one’s sexual partner has been his sincere belief since the age of 18 when he became a Christian, it is important to remember that the Liberal Democrats stand for certain principles. They are a party that would like to be seen to embody ‘progressive’ politics, ranging from decriminalisation of marijuana, to social representation and educational reforms. It is true, as a consequence, that the party would not be well suited to a leader who cannot say with a clear conscience that homosexual activity is no moral failing.
If Farron and his party think that becoming a ‘progressive’ hero is going to make him prime minister, then they have learned nothing from their failure at the last election. It is true that Corbyn’s steering of the Labour Party has marooned it far from the port of competent opposition where the Lib Dems strain to position themselves, and that an anti-Brexit stance sets his party as the best choice for those looking to halt Brexit altogether, however, in a ‘First Past The Post’ system an issue like this simply cannot cut it. The Lib Dems that did obtain seats in the 2015 election won by quite a large majority, but in other areas their failure was by similarly significant amount. Yes, they will probably have some success targeting particularly pro-Europe areas, certain to win seats from Labour and perhaps even a few from the Conservatives. They will likely pass the buck of the ‘cruel and punishing night’ to the next declining party. The Lib Dems are attempting to play the same game that the SNP played off the back of the bid for Scottish Independence, but the SNP were not fighting the Tories in their homeland. In most respects, Farron is every inch the leader that the Lib Dems want; there are other reasons that the Lib Dems remain unpopular. Unfortunately, publicly catching up to where David Cameron was in 2014 on the topic of homosexuality probably is not likely to change that.