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Tim Farron, Gay Sex, Democracy And Populism

06/06/2017 12:00 BST | Updated 06/06/2017 12:00 BST
Christopher Furlong via Getty Images

Tim Farron does not think gay sex is a sin. Nor does he think that homosexuality is a sin. However, until recently, he was far from clear on the matter. Farron has never explained why he voted against legal protections for the LGBT+ people in 2007. In 2015, asked if he thought homosexuals were sinners Farron replied gnomically, 'We're all sinners.' Following this foray into theological pontification, he performed a U-turn, parrying more recent questions on the grounds that political leaders should not 'pontificate on theological matters.'

Farron is entitled to his views on gay sex - whatever they may be. Assuming he does not indulge in hate speech, he is entitled to express himself openly, to campaign and build support for his vision. He's equally entitled to duck the issue, or tell barefaced lies. However, and this is crucial, as politician in a democracy he should be scrutinised, and held to account.

Yet, the way in which journalists have pressed Farron to give a straight (if that's the right word) answer, has caused outrage in some parts of the media. Blogging for the Spectator, Melanie McDonagh accused journalists of conducting a 'witch hunt'. For David Robertson, writing in Premier Christianity , the Lib Dem leader was the latest victim of the 'thought police.' For others, including Rod Liddle, the Farron affair shows there is more than a whiff of intolerance in modern politics.

These criticisms are profoundly wrongheaded. The claim that 'liberal' journalists form some kind of 'Thought Police' is just so much hyperbole. George Orwell's fictional Thought Police arrested, tortured and executed their victims. O'Brien describes Winston Smith's ultimate fate thus: 'You will be lifted clean out from the stream of history. We shall turn you into gas and pour you into the stratosphere.' The journalists who have interviewed Farron have no such ambition. Whatever Farron's view on gay sex, no one is suggesting that he should lose his liberty, his life, his right to think or speak freely. Nor do the journalists interviewing Farron have the right to crush him under heavy rocks until he answers their questions, unlike Salem's zealous inquisitors.

Another argument against the 'liberal press', is based on the notion that interviewers want to uncover Farron's beliefs. On this account, journalists should restrict themselves to enquiring about policy. To enquire about what a politician really feels is verging on the totalitarian because it aims to search the heart, rather merely scrutinise actions. This is a more subtle criticism, but it is no less flawed. Beliefs and actions are bound together. Farron's decision to abstain on the Marriage - Same Sex Couples Act was surely based on his beliefs. Indeed, following his abstention it seems reasonable to enquire after his motives.

What of David Shariatmadari's demand, that on entering government Farron 'should be watched like a hawk for any hint of discriminatory law-making'? This is surely punitive? The first thing to note is that Shariatmadari does not claim that thinking gay sex is sinful should be a bar to entering government. The second that Shariatmadari does not assume a necessary connection between Farron's personal views and anti-gay legislation. Is it reasonable for Shariatmadari to be concerned that Farron might show some sympathy for restricting LGBT+ rights? The short answer is yes. Not only did Farron abstain on equal marriage, he voted against the Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations, which outlawed many types of discrimination, including the denial of access to public services, on the grounds of sexuality.

What about the claim of intolerance? Farron is seeking re-election as a law maker. While he has every right to vote according to his conscience, to make a public case for his position, to seek to lead public opinion, voters have every right to scrutinise him and hold him to account. There is nothing intolerant in asking would-be leaders of government where they stand on an issue as important as LGBT+ rights. Indeed, if democracy is to function properly, citizens have a duty to scrutinise their representatives. Moreover, voting against Farron because of his track record on LGBT+ rights, or his refusal to account for that record, or his reticence to speak sincerely about his views, cannot be construed as a punishment, for the simple reason that Farron has no God-given right to his seat in Parliament.

If the campaign against 'witch hunts' and 'intolerance' is not really a defence of fundamental freedoms, how should it be understood? My controversial answer is that it's a form of populism. Dr Sophia Rosenfeld of the University of Pennsylvania has argued convincingly that populism is best understood as position which starts from the assertion that 'the people' (specifically an in group) have been robbed by an 'elite' (usually a coalition of people with some kind of power and a minority group). Importantly, populists claim that 'the people' have been robbed of the right to organise society according to 'common sense', as they see it.

The beef against 'intolerant liberals' in much of the coverage of Farron fits this model. What is really at stake is the ability of social conservatives to define marriage and human sexuality according their 'common sense' view. Moreover, they have been 'robbed' of this right by a coalition of metropolitan liberals and a minority group: the LGBT+ community. What Liddle et al. want, then, is not free and open debate, but a return to a Britain in which the nature of marriage and sexuality was unquestioned. Indeed, their big grievance is that Farron was asked to explain himself at all.

Farron has every right to his views, every right to express them, every right to vote according to his conscience. However, journalists, pressure groups and members of the public have an equal right to scrutinise him. While it may offend the 'common sense' of the populists, there is nothing illiberal or intolerant in asking a would-be Prime Minister 'is gay sex a sin?'