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Yes, Tim Farron Is a Diehard Liberal

01/09/2015 16:53 BST | Updated 29/08/2016 10:59 BST

There was once a time when to be liberal meant to be tolerant of other people's views and behaviours - to allow them even when they offend or disgust, and even when they are thought to be immoral. The most passionate liberals did not just tolerate, however. They fought passionately for public tolerance and legal freedom for those views and behaviours. Hence Voltaire's famous non-quote:* 'I detest what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.'

This sentiment is especially apt for another reason in particular: it has remained, to this day, one of the defining hallmarks of the Liberal Democrats' outlook. They have been fearlessly and uncompromisingly in favour of free speech, fighting to preserve the right of people to say the most wretched things, however much they contradict other Liberal Democrat values.

The Liberal Democrat commitment to free speech is one of their most admirable qualities, and it is one of their most defining ones. Rightly so. And this is why it is such a shame that Tim Farron is being castigated by fellow party members for his 'illiberal' views on abortion and homosexuality. The truth is that his views are far more liberal than their own.

The reason is fairly simple. Just as defending freedom of speech - however ugly or repulsive - is one of the paradigm examples of liberalism, so is defending the freedom to do things which one also finds immoral or otherwise offensive.

All of us have a code of morality. Most of us think murder is wrong. Some of us think that corporate greed is wrong. Some of us think that war is wrong. Some of us think that imposing morality on others is wrong. There is no high ground to be had in having no moral values. Not having moral values or making moral judgments is not 'liberal' or 'progressive'. It is not compassionate or open-minded. It is nihilistic and barbaric. Someone who doesn't take offence at exploitation of the poor, or who doesn't really judge child abuse to be wrong, has something profoundly wrong with them.

So Tim Farron is not unusual for thinking that some things are morally wrong. Vegetarians (usually) think that eating meat is wrong. Pro-Palestine protestors think that the behaviour of Israel is wrong. Welfarists think that the state not providing for the poor is wrong, while their opponents think that individuals not doing so off their own backs is wrong. No one who really grapples with the hard questions of politics or who sees their neighbour in trouble and wants to help can be satisfied with flouting morals. No one who loves the vulnerable can escape being, at heart, a judgmental moralist.

Liberalism is not rooted in these sorts of moral debates. It is rooted in the question of what we do with our moral beliefs once we acquire them, and once we meet and live with others who disagree. And, while authoritarians have traditionally held that there should be a rigid, strict and detailed system of public morality built into law for all to adhere to, liberals have traditionally held the opposite: that despite their own personal morality - which could be anything from nihilistic, to Islamic, to utilitarian - public morality and law should not be too imposing. It should allow for disagreements by being legally tolerant of them, in speech and in practice. That is what liberalism is - legal liberty. It does not mean giving up personal moral views, or changing them until they fit with the popular ones. It means being tolerant of other views and their practice, especially when they conflict with one's own.

And that is why Tim Farron is a better liberal than his detractors. Mr Farron most probably thinks that gay sex, gay marriage and abortion are wrong, however diplomatic he tries to be in his phraseology. He has done his best to keep these views to himself and not to impose them on others - it is news reporters and undercover aides who have tried to bring these views out of him despite his clear reticence. If anything, he has been bombarded with opposing views to his own far more than he has tried to impose his on others.

And yet Mr Farron has fully endorsed the legality of those actions. And these are no trivia: Mr Farron likely thinks that abortion is the killing of an innocent, unborn child, created in the image of God - on a par with killing a newborn or an adult. And yet he has stated that he is fully in support of a woman's right to choose an abortion. I suspect it is hard to find another Liberal Democrat who would endorse the legality of something they thought was that wrong. I can think of very few Liberal Democrats who would endorse the legality of the killing of newborns, and fewer still who would endorse the legal freedom to kill adults.

But Mr Farron has risen above his own personal views here in the name of public and legal liberty. He has done the same on the issue of gay marriage. And when he has abstained from votes on gay marriage, he has, again, done so in the name of liberty - because it was not clear that religious liberty would be preserved in the passing of those Bills. He is for the legality of gay marriage - and for the legality of opposing it or refusing to be involved in it.

So I cannot sit back and watch other liberals call Tim Farron's views 'illiberal' because they do not line up with their own personal views. I cannot rest watching them declare that he is not the strong liberal voice that the party needs. Liberalism does not come by adopting the reigning orthodoxy of 'progressive' and leftist ethics, while passing Bills limiting freedom for those who dissent from it. Indeed, liberalism can only come from strong disagreement, and the courage not only to put up with, but to sacrifice oneself for, those views and actions which one deems offensive.

Some of us find Tim Farron's personal views offensive. Others agree with them and are appalled that he could vouch for the legality of things which he already believes to be so wrong. But whatever the problem with Tim Farron, it cannot possibly be that he is not liberal enough. If anything, he is too liberal - for both conservatives and his fellow Liberal Democrats.

*While commonly attributed to Voltaire, this is in fact a later (accurate) paraphrase of his position.