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A Better Ambition: Confessions of a faithful liberal, by Tim Farron

29 November 2019

Anthony Phillips sees courage and grace in Tim Farron’s memoirs

THE face that stares out from the dust jacket of this unique political biography is that of a tortured man. Tim Farron has seen his ambition destroyed, and is not afraid to reveal to his readers in the frankest manner his journey into personal darkness.

As leader of the Liberal Democrat Party in the 2017 General Election, Farron knew that he had to save the party from oblivion. Although he succeeded in increasing the number of MPs, he believes that he failed to get the party’s message across “because of ludicrous questions to do with my faith”.

Farron describes his humble background, schooling, passion for pop music and football, youthful involvement in student and community politics, and conversion. His rise from MP for Westmorland to party president and then leader of the party was swift. Yet he always felt that his adherence to “biblical teaching” would bring him down. Wrongly perceiving him as a homophobe, interviewers in the election persisted in asking him “Is gay sex a sin?” In the end, for the sake of the party, he answered in the negative.

Farron felt utterly miserable, furious with himself, and lost. It is here that the narrative reaches its most poignant point. I have seldom read such a heartfelt description of the nature of God’s grace, as Farron describes how he was helped to recognise that, despite anything he did, he could never be lost to God.

The treatment that Farron received during the election campaign was utterly unjust. While personally holding to what the Bible says, he believed that it was “fundamentally illiberal to legislate to make people who are not Christians behave as though they were”.

Movingly, Farron describes how he took the decision to stand down as party leader. Even then, his torture did not end: “I was plunged into an appalling darkness.” While still feeling wounded, all he wants now is to serve his constituents and God, and that a free society should understand that “faith is an essential part of a liberal and decent country.”

In his penultimate chapter, Farron offers a critique of contemporary liberalism, which he sees as in desperate need of redemption. It is “tolerant of everything — apart from the stuff we disagree with”. He argues that Christianity provides the values that permit liberalism to flourish. The absence of faith is not a neutral position. Recognising that the economic part of liberalism has failed, he conjures up the spirit of Roosevelt’s New Deal, and envisages a merging of all who are discontented with the two-party system.

Farron’s book confirms the depths to which political life in this country has sunk. But he would be the last to say that Christians should not enter politics. There is no better way of serving “lives lived at the margins”. Whether or not one holds Farron’s literalist view of the Bible — or indeed his views on sexual ethics, on which the Churches themselves are divided, and whose teachings many of their adherents reject — one cannot but have the utmost sympathy for this courageous and liberal man driven to breaking-point.

Canon Anthony Phillips is a former headmaster of The King’s School, Canterbury.

A Better Ambition: Confessions of a faithful liberal
Tim Farron
SPCK £19.99
Church Times Bookshop £17.99

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