Proving you are capable of ethical reasoning is part of representative democracy
Tim Farron has resigned, and the media is in outcry. “It’s not Tim Farron who is illiberal: it’s society” declared The Spectator. “Liberalism means that you should have the choice to believe in as much or as little as you want” wrote a commentator for the Independent. And then Farron himself couldn’t resist; “we are kidding ourselves if we think we live in a tolerant, liberal society” he wrote.
At least they’re right about one thing. Liberalism gives everyone the right to hold whatever beliefs they want. The problem is that it doesn’t grant everyone the right to lead a major political party while holding such beliefs.
We expect numerable skills from our political leaders; intelligence, robust media performances and sensible reasoning skills. As much as he might pretend otherwise, Farron’s failing wasn’t about his religious beliefs. It was about his lack of ethical reasoning, and his inability to reach judgements about moral decisions in a rational, sensible way.
Why is this important? We live in a representative democracy. As much as Liberal Democrats may fawn over Farron’s voting record (while conveniently omitting numerous amendments and abstentions to LGBT and women’s rights legislation), politicians aren’t elected solely on their policy platform. The nature of a representative democracy means that we elect politicians to make decisions on our behalf. As part of this process, it is prudent to question the ethical and moral judgements of those standing to become our elective representatives.
“I seem to be the subject of suspicion because of what I believe” wrote Farron shortly after his resignation. Yes you were, Tim. It’s called skepticism. And any healthy representative democracy would embrace it.
As the saying goes, the personal is political. It is a fantasy to imagine that you can separate personal views from political judgements. As I’ve written elsewhere, the mistake underlying the Liberal Democrat’s dismal election result was in running a campaign devoid of value-judgements. They offered technocratic policies which lacked any ideology. Corbyn’s electoral surge showed this to be a broken strategy; values, beliefs and ideology were proved to be inseparable from politics.
The real debate surrounding Farron’s resignation isn’t about society’s tolerance of religious belief. It’s about the status homophobia still holds in our society, and how it remains socially acceptable to believe same-sex love is immoral. Imagine if a political leader had held a ‘private’ belief that inter-racial marriage was wrong. Could you imagine the liberals queueing up to excuse them with the same defence – oh, but it’s only a privately-held view – as they did for Farron?
Instead of complaining about society, Liberal Democrat supporters should answer serious questions of themselves. Why were they able to overlook the fact that their party was led by a homophobe for two years? Why did they sit quietly while their leader failed to deny that gay sex was sinful on live television? And why did senior party figures wait until after the general election before protesting Farron’s leadership?
Of course Farron is entitled to believe what he wants. That’s a fundamental right of a liberal democracy. However, he cannot demand unquestioning political support in spite of those beliefs. As Corbyn’s electoral surge showed, the age of managerial and technocratic politics – where it didn’t matter what politicians believed as long as they delivered economic “strength and stability” – is over. Thankfully, values, beliefs and ideologies are returning to political debate.
In last week’s election the British people decided that Farron’s values, and the absence of ethical reasoning to support them, had no place in British politics. It’s worth remembering that it took a dire electoral performance to pressure Farron to resign. Good riddance.