The Resignation of Tim Farron: 3) What it says about the Liberal Democrats and their culture.

In my first article about the resignation of Tim Farron, I considered it as an indication of the growing hostility in western culture to some traditional Christian beliefs. In my second article, I looked at what it told us about Tim Farron as a person.

However there is a third angle that I want to look at. In his resignation statement, he said  To be a leader, particularly of a progressive liberal party in 2017 and to live as a committed Christian and to hold faithfully to the Bible’s teaching has felt impossible for me.”

I think that is the crucial sentence in his resignation statement. It is crucial because it tells us about what Farron felt – and it was those feelings that led him to resign. But it is interesting because he did not say “To be a leader of a political party in 2017 . . .”; he said “To be a leader, particularly of a progressive liberal party in 2017.” In other words, Farron felt that there was something about his party that made his position particularly difficult.

For me, this raises questions about his relationship with individuals in the party. A party, in the end, is made of people. The philosophy of parties drifts, and their policies change – sometimes remarkably quickly. These things are important, but they are fluid. But it is real individuals that a leader has to work with; and his relationship with those colleagues has a big impact about how much pressure he feels under.

I know virtually nothing about the relationship between Farron and his colleagues, and I don’t know much about what they thought of his Christian beliefs. But there are three individuals in the party whose cases throw interesting light on the party and on Farron’s resignation.

The roll of Brian Paddick

The first is Lord Paddick. Many people assume that the event that triggered Farron’s departure was the resignation of Paddick as the Lib Dem home affairs spokesman, since Paddick said “I’ve resigned as Lib Dems Shadow Home Secretary over concerns about the leader’s views on various issues that were highlighted during GE17,” and Farron stepped down within 24 hours.

According to the Independent

Lord Paddick, a former police officer and London Lib Dem Mayoral candidate in 2008 and 2012, did not specify what views he referred to, but during the campaign leader Tim Farron came under heavy scrutiny for his repeatedly refusing to deny that he considered gay sex to be a sin. Lord Paddick is gay, and a practising Christian too. He has been married to his Norwegian husband for eight years, but prior to this spent ten years married to a woman, Mary Stone. “

So, not only did Tim Farron not say what exactly the problem was, but neither did Paddick. And that is not the only thing I find odd about Paddick’s case.

Paddick has said (via twitter) “Tim decided weeks ago to stand down (he didn’t tell me) and the timing of our resignations was pure co-incidence.” Many Lib Dem activists have blamed Paddick for Farron’s resignation and been quite angry at him. However, not only does it seem unlikely that Farron’s resignation was sparked by Paddick’s resignation; it also is not at all clear (at least not to me) that Paddick resigned because of Farron’s views about same-sex relationships – though the Guardian seems certain that he did.

Apparently Paddick wrote an explanation for LibDemVoice, but it was taken down, and he has, so far, declined to post it elsewhere. At any rate, I find Paddick’s resignation slightly puzzling, and am not really surprised that most people assume that he thinks that Farron’s views on sexuality make him unsuitable to be leader of the Liberal Democrats.

The case of David Laws

If Lord Paddick kept his cards close to his chest, the same cannot be said of David Laws, the former Yeovil M.P. Laws, in a highly critical article, wrote

“you cannot be a leader of a liberal party while holding fundamentally illiberal and prejudiced views, which fail to respect our party’s great traditions of promoting equality for all our citizens. . . . Far more importantly, Tim has propagated the dangerous myth that our society can respect and embrace people in same sex relationships, while believing their activities and character to be in some way immoral.”

Laws clearly thinks that it is impossible to hold traditional Christian beliefs about sexual morality and be leader of a liberal party. I think that Laws is talking nonsense. For a start, he speaks about the “the party’s great traditions” – as if it would have been unthinkable at any time in the past for a leader of the Lib Dems or its predecessor parties to hold traditional Christian views on same-sex relationships. But more strangely, his statement that it is a dangerous myth “that our society can respect and embrace people in same sex relationships, while believing their activities and character to be in some way immoral”, must, if taken to its logical conclusion, means that it is a dangerous myth that our society can respect and embrace people in who are having affairs with other people’s spouses, while believing their activities and character to be in some way immoral.

But it still leaves the question of whether such views were common enough in the party to have caused Farron to feel isolated.

The case of Jenny Tonge

While much attention was focused on Paddick in the aftermath of Farron’s resignation, and a reasonable amount on Laws, it seems to me that the story of Baroness Tonge actually throws much more light on Farron’s departure.

In 2003, Jenny Tonge (at that time MP for Richmond Park), visited the Gaza Strip, and what she saw led her to say of Palestinian suicide bombers: “If I had to live in that situation – and I say that advisedly – I might just consider becoming one myself“. She repeated her comments on Sky News, but added “I do not condone suicide bombers, nobody can condone them“. She made clear that she thought that suicide bombers actions were “appalling and loathsome”, but refused to apologise: “I was just trying to say how, having seen the violence and the humiliation and the provocation that the Palestinian people live under every day and have done since their land was occupied by Israel, I could understand“.

Charles Kennedy, the party leader at the time, said her comments were “completely unacceptable” and “not compatible with Liberal Democrat party policies and principles” and “there can be no justification, under any circumstances for taking innocent lives through terrorism.” He said this despite the fact that Tonge had never suggested that there could be any justification for their actions, and had made it clear that she believed there could not.

Tonge continued to be outspoken about Israeli government policy. In September 2006 she said: “The pro-Israeli lobby has got its grips on the western world, its financial grips. I think they’ve probably got a grip on our party“. In response, Liberal Democrat leader Sir Menzies Campbell wrote to Tonge commenting that her unacceptable assertion had “clear anti-Semitic connotations”. Tonge responded that her comments “were about the Israeli lobby in politics. They were a big distance from being about Jewishness or anti-Semitism“.

After further outspoken attacks on Israeli government policy in 2012, she was asked by party leader Nick Clegg to apologise for her remarks. She refused to do so and resigned the party whip. I can see where both of them are coming from.

Jenny Tonge had said

“Beware Israel. Israel is not going to be there for ever in its present form. One day, the United States of America will get sick of giving £70bn a year to Israel to support what I call America’s aircraft carrier in the Middle East – that is Israel. One day, the American people are going to say to the Israel lobby in the USA: enough is enough. . . . Israel will lose support and then they will reap what they have sown.”

Nick Clegg responded:

“Jenny Tonge does not speak for the party on Israel and Palestine. Her presence and comments at this event were extremely ill-advised and ill-judged. The tone of the debate at this event was wholly unacceptable and adds nothing to the peace process. The Liberal Democrats are wholehearted supporters of a peaceful two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine issue.”

Note that this was an honest disagreement about Lib Dem Middle East policy, and about the fact that Tonge was saying things that didn’t fit with party policy, and that were going to cause serious offence to many voters. Nick Clegg felt that as party leader he had to distance the party from her. There was no mention of antisemitism. This was about Middle East policy.

What is strange is the public comments from people that one would not normally look to about Middle East policy who were unhappy with Tonge’s comments:

The chief rabbi, Lord Sacks, said:

“I am appalled at Baroness Tonge’s remarks. They are dangerous, inflammatory and unacceptable. I commend Nick Clegg for his decisive action. Views such as those expressed by Baroness Tonge have no place in civil public discourse.”

The Board of Deputies of British Jews had condemned her remarks. In a statement issued before Tonge’s resignation, the chief executive, Jon Benjamin, said:

“Given her long-standing, pernicious views on Israel, her comment that Israel ‘is not going to be there forever’ is both sinister and abhorrent. There is no place for someone like Jenny Tonge in mainstream political parties in this country and it is time for the Liberal Democrats to act quickly and decisively, once and for all.”

That is odd. I would look to the chief rabbi for comment about Jewish religious teaching. I would expect that the Board of Deputies of British Jews would be interested in the matter of the welfare of Jews in the UK. Why did they feel that they had to comment about Jenny Tonge’s comments about Israeli government policy? Why are they so defensive about the policy of a foreign government?

In October 2016, Tonge finally left the party. While the Guardian said that she “quit the party after she was suspended over alleged antisemitic comments,” the Independent’s account was more accurate, and explains that she was suspended after chairing a meeting at the House of Lords at which a speaker allegedly compared Israel was to ISIS and suggested that Jews were to blame for the Holocaust.  She said:

“I was chairing, I did not make any speeches, I introduced the speakers and in the course of that meeting there was a great rant.  I remember the rant very well but I don’t remember hearing very much of it. It was a rant. I didn’t know what this person said.  You do get ranters at these meetings and I think the best way of dealing with them – if you challenge them they go on and on and on and on – the best way is to just say ‘yes, thank you very much, next speaker’.”

So what did this speaker say?

“Just as the so-called Jewish state in Palestine doesn’t come from Judaism, Muslims will say that this Islamic State in Syria is nothing to do with Islam. . . . It is a perversion of Islam just as Zionism is a perversion of Judaism.”

The speaker later referred to a rabbi as a “heretic”, adding he “made the economic boycott on Germany which antagonised Hitler, over the edge, to then want to systemically kill Jews wherever he could find them as opposed to just make Germany a Jew-free land“.

Baroness Tonge refused to say if, having read the words, she finds them offensive, instead describing the remarks as “incomprehensible”, and said that she would not have intervened to stop or eject the speaker if she had heard him, adding,

“I think I would have said ‘thank you very much, next speaker’. Because that, I know I’ve chaired many meetings, I’m an old lady, if you take issue with something a speaker has said the whole thing escalates. . . . If I had been comprehending or hearing even what that man was saying clearly it might have been different, but I didn’t. . . . The Israeli embassy is offended all the time by anything that is ever said in criticism of the Israeli government and they always translate it as being anti-Semitism, which it is not, it is criticism of the Israeli government.”

She said she “wouldn’t have thought” there was anti-Semitism at the meeting but that she could not speak for every person at the meeting individually, and added “I know that I have never been never have been, never will be anti-Semitic.

Tim Farron’s roll in the case of Jenny Tonge

What was Tim Farron’s roll in all this?

On 11th October, 2016 (two weeks before the meeting in the House of Lords that resulted in Tonge leaving the party), Farron was questioned by the Home Affairs Committee as part of their inquiry into antisemitism.

He was questioned specifically about Baroness Tonge. He said that he had “no desire to … be defensive about [her remarks] and that he considered them to be “unacceptable.” He also emphasised several times that Jenny Tonge did not have the party whip. He was careful not to say that he considered either her or her remarks to be antisemitic, but nor did he deny that they were.

On May 2nd, 2017, Farron, in the course of a speech where he addressed the problem of antisemitism, said: “I believe in liberal outcomes but sometimes you have to be muscular. And that is why I dealt with Jenny Tonge the way I did and why I dealt with David Ward the way I did.

It seems to me that there is not a shred of evidence to suggest that Jenny Tonge might be antisemitic. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that she is not. And yet year after year she was accused of it, and her name was associated with it. And while Tim Farron never accused her of being antisemitic, he never publicly defended her from the accusations. And in a meeting in which he addressed the question of antisemitism, he spoke as if Jenny Tonge was part of the problem.

Of course, everything depends on how one defines antisemitism. But according to any standard definition, she most definitely is not. Parliament’s Home Affairs select committee said ” it was not antisemitic “to criticise the government of Israel, without additional evidence to suggest antisemitic intent”. Neither was it antisemitic “to hold the Israeli government to the same standards as other liberal democracies, or to take a particular interest in the Israeli government’s policies or actions, without additional evidence to suggest antisemitic intent.” “

However, by the same token, the question of whether Tim Farron is homophobic depends on one’s definition of homophobia. David Laws never actually said that Farron was homophobic, but in saying that Farron held “illiberal and prejudiced views” he got very close to implying it.

The heart of the matter

And this is where we get to the heart of the matter. While there are difference between what happened to Jenny Tonge and Tim Farron (Farron never appeared to be in conflict with party policy, and went out of his way not to be outspoken) – they are actually very similar. Both were hounded because they were seen as friends of prejudice – prejudice against groups that are generally perceived as “victim” groups. In other words, they had offended against the canons of political correctness. Their offences might not have been seriousness, they might not have technically committed any offences at all, but accusations had been made, and the very hint of antisemitism or homophobia meant that they were not to be trusted.

In other words, nobody went after Tim Farron because he was a Christian. They went after him because he was suspected of not being an orthodox believer in the tenets of political correctness. And in a “progressive liberal party in 2017” there will be no room for those who transgress that orthodoxy.

Or, to put it another way, Farron felt obliged to resign as leader for exactly the same reason that Tonge felt obliged to leave the party.

Which makes it ironic that Farron made no effort to defend Baroness Tonge from the incessant charges of antisemitism.  She seems to have noticed it too, but restricted herself to a short comment on Facebook:

“Nothing becomes Tim Farron more than his passing! He is sticking to his principles (Christian Evangelical).  Maybe he at last understands, that when it comes to Palestinians, I stick to my principles too, supporting human rights and international law. “

I think that I would go a bit further. I am reminded of the famous poem by the German Pastor, Martin Niemöller

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

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