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Interview: Tim Farron, former leader of the Liberal Democrats

06 September 2019

‘Being gracious towards others does not mean that we must shrug and meekly accept their dishonesty’

I have a friend who euphemistically refers to difficult people she knows as “grace builders”. In other words, folks who test your patience and good will so much that they help you to develop your capacity for grace. . . I have no personal animosity towards the inhabitants of No. 10. As Christians, we are commanded to forgive — an incredibly radical thing in a society like ours that seeks to blame and demonise the other.

But truth is as important as grace. While I should show love, patience, and mercy towards our PM and his advisers, I am not commanded to overlook the growing dishonestly in government, where the Prime Minister tells the public that we are closing in on a deal when he and his advisers know that this is categorically untrue. Being gracious towards others does not mean that we must shrug and meekly accept their dishonesty.

If the Government thinks it can rouse the mob over the heads of those elected by the people, and to disregard the rule of law and operate in a “post-truth” manner . . . then I would have great fears. I would want to counsel us, however, not to panic. Christians know that all empires are temporary, and that all kings will fall, except for one. These are dark times, but are they darker than those I grew up in when we lived under the shadow of the Bomb at the height of the Cold War? Or darker than the days experienced by those who lived through war in Europe? We have a hope that transcends these temporary troubles. Don’t shrug — because all this stuff really does matter. But do not fear.

A no-deal Brexit is utterly avoidable, and would be undemocratic. I spoke to a group of farmers last week. They had split 50:50 in the referendum, but not a single one of them supported no deal. Enforcing no deal is not giving the 52 per cent their way. It is forcing a contrived and arbitrary interpretation of the referendum result on the British people without asking them.

I was very proud to be leader of the Party. But, in the end, as a famous missionary said, “He’s no fool who gives up what he cannot keep in order to gain what he cannot lose.” It’s a great blessing to be put into a situation where you can make that kind of a choice. I’d reached the conclusion that, as much down to my own lack of wisdom as well as anything else, to remain leader I’d have backslidden to get people to focus on the party’s policies, or else had to answer the odd questions that I was continually being asked. It’s costly, but all things worth while are.

Christianity is always countercultural. If we’re not living counter-culturally, we need to have a word with ourselves. It’s mind-blowingly radical to forgive people who don’t deserve it, or to accept that you’re not God and that you owe everything to the one who is.

Society in 2019 seems happy to tolerate people of faith — so long as they don’t talk about it much, and don’t let it affect their worldview. This is, of course, a load of illiberal nonsense. Christian MPs will, and do, get some stick when they put their heads above the parapet. I’ve seen it happen in other parties in recent weeks. Don’t go seeking martyrdom, but don’t be surprised when the world is hostile. It’s our response to this that matters. Christians aren’t called to complain about the stick they get, but, instead, to be utterly gracious, kind, and patient to those who dish out the grief. Turn the other cheek.

I’m overjoyed for both of my successors now, and very supportive of them. As someone said: “There was a great big space in the middle of politics.” Now, there’s something quite credible in this space. It’s absolutely the right person at the right moment, and it’s important to the country at a time when we’re being offered extreme answers to complex questions, which are never wise.

Among the problems the Lib Dems face is the rise of populism on both the Left and the Right. It means that we have too many politicians offering simplistic solutions to complex problems. Our recent successes in local and European elections suggest that the electorate might be coming around to the novel idea of politicians’ using logic before making decisions; so I’m a bit more optimistic about our chances in the next General Election.

The Lib Dems made some mistakes in coalition. Every party in government does. I’m certain that we did the right thing by the country by going into that coalition. I’m also certain that it did us huge electoral damage. The saddest thing is that other politicians have concluded that, whatever you do, don’t do the right thing, because the electorate will punish you for it. Working with other parties is essential. You don’t have to agree with people to be able to work out some common ground and act in a grown-up way in the national interest.

I’m now the Lib Dem spokesperson for communities and local government. I was a councillor for 11 years, and I’m passionate about local government. This role gives me the ability to use my influence to challenge some of the big issues that fall under the remit of local government: most notably on social care, children’s services, and housing.

I’ve always thought that power should be held as high as necessary but as low as possible. Decisions are always taken at central-government level, and even people from local government tend to forget that when they get into positions that make a difference.

Local government suffers not from lack of power but lack of resources. When there are cuts to be made, the easiest are in local government, because someone else takes the blame. They have to raise council tax and reduce spending. Devolution means very little unless you devolve finances, or else you’re a vassal of the Treasury. Maybe we should have local income tax, because that’s fairer.

My constituency has Kendal at its centre, and it takes in the Cartmel peninsula, the southern part of the Lake District including Windermere, Coniston, Ambleside, Grasmere, Hawkshead, and the Langdales, and the western Yorkshire Dales and the towns and villages of Sedbergh, Dent, Barbon, and Casterton, and then the South Westmorland communities of Kirkby Lonsdale, Burton, Holme, Milnthorpe, and Arnside. These are astonishingly beautiful places, with strong and vibrant communities, but they face real challenges, with hidden poverty and the problems that come with rural isolation and the gap between huge house prices and low wages.

I grew up just outside Preston, with farmland and a gasworks behind me and a main road and the mainline in front. We weren’t at all well off, and my parents divorced when I was five; but they were both immensely loving and supportive. I was brought up with strong values, but wasn’t churched.

I joined the Liberals at 16, full of zeal, but even I knew that joining the Liberal Party wasn’t a fast track to a career in politics. I became a local councillor in Lancashire, and then, later, in Cumbria, having had a career in higher education. Winning Westmorland and Lonsdale from the Conservatives, who’d held the seat since 1910, was a huge task that involved recruiting, inspiring, deploying, and leading a team of volunteers. Looking back, I’m amazed that we managed it, and very grateful to all who were involved and who work so hard today.

There was a lady called Neva Orrell, who was a councillor in Leyland, in Lancashire: she epitomised the can-do/must-do approach to local campaigning that I’ve sought to emulate. Her commitment to service with integrity left an indelible mark on me, as has her inability to give up and walk away in the aftermath of defeat.

Now I live just outside the Lake District, in my constituency, with my wife, Rosie, and our four children. It’s a busy, vibrant, noisy home, and I love it. It’s prayer and running which help me cope with the demands of the job and the commuting to Westminster.

A Better Ambition is my story, taking the seven intense weeks of the 2017 General Election, along with many excursions into my early life, the formation of my politics, and my coming to faith in Christ, along with political experiences, including the historic Coalition Government. I seek in the book to examine how it is possible to be an orthodox Christian and a left-of-centre liberal, and make the case for a much better form of liberalism to deal with the challenges of our age.

I wrote it first as a catharsis, and then I found myself thoroughly energised by the experience of writing. I hope that it will be read by people who are interested in politics and current affairs, as well as Christians and others with an interest in faith.

Since he’s closer to us than our very thoughts, as Tozer said, I guess I’ve never not had an experience of God. It just took me until I was 18 to work out that it was him.

I became a Christian at 18 because I was struck by the realisation that Christianity is true. I fell away at 23, because I just got too wrapped up in all the worldly things that can trap a young man. I unbackslid when I was 32, because I came to my senses. I hadn’t wandered away from God because I had stopped believing in the truth of the gospel: I had wandered away because I’d found it inconvenient, and I realised my backsliding had been intellectually bankrupt.

Sharing the gospel has been the most courageous thing I’ve been asked to do, but, if I do anything else, I’d like to use my profile to share it more.

It’s mostly me that makes me angry.

I’m happiest being at home with my family,
running over the limestone crags near my home, and seeing Blackburn Rovers win.

I get tired like anybody else. All the fruits of the Spirit are important, but self-control seems to me very important. Discipline. I need to sleep more, spend more time reading the Word and in the presence of the Lord. It’s not a transactional faith we have, but that sense of well-being is aided by spending time relationally with God.

The same goes for physical exercise. I often think I can’t be bothered to go running, but, by the time I’m on my fourth song on my headphones, I realise it’s awesome — great for my head and for my body.

My favourite sound is the opening bars of “Faron Young”, the first track of Steve McQueen by Prefab Sprout, knowing I have a spare 40 minutes to listen to the rest of the album.

My hope for the future lies in knowing that God keeps his promises and he’ll see me safely home.

I pray most often for my family, and for perseverance in my faith.

I’d choose to find myself locked in a church with Gene Kranz, the flight director for the Gemini and Apollo missions. He was involved in every twist and turn in the space race, and, in particular, the Moon landings. If he isn’t already bored to death telling his stories, I’d just love to listen to him reeling off his greatest hits. He’s a man of real humility, strength, integrity, wisdom, and passion — a truly great servant leader and a wonderful example.

Tim Farron was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

A Better Ambition: Confessions of a faithful liberal is published in hardback by SPCK, £19.99 (CT Bookshop £17.99). The paperback will be available in July 2020.

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