Martin Charlesworth
The rise and fall of Tim Farron

The Liberal Democrats were hammered in the 2015 general election. Punished by the electorate for their role in the previous coalition government, only nine MPs remained. Out of the ashes of 2015 came Tim Farron, the surprise choice to replace Nick Clegg. Young and fresh faced, Farron promised to revive the party’s fortunes. His energetic leadership and clear policy positions seemed to be working – up to a point. In the 2017 general election the Liberal Democrats made very modest gains.

Yet there was another story – the story of Tim Farron’s Christian faith. He is the first party leader for a long time who was an avowed evangelical Christian and who clearly took his faith very seriously, was not afraid to talk about it, and was a committed member of a local church in his constituency.

Farron’s overt Christian faith attracted ongoing and persistent questioning from the media about his moral views – particularly over homosexuality. How could Farron explain the tension between his personal commitment to evangelical sexual ethics and his party’s commitment to gay rights? This line of questioning was relentless over the two years of his tenure of the party leadership. It ultimately led to his resignation, upon which he cited the extreme difficulty he found in balancing his personal faith and his public role as a party leader.

Farron’s resignation as Liberal Democrat leader shortly after the recent election was sensational and sudden. It was also an unprecedented event in recent British political history: no one else has resigned from party leadership purely on the grounds of their difficulty living as a “faithful Christian” (Farron’s words) in such a role.

There is a profound challenge to our modern society in these events. Here was a political leader profoundly committed to live and work with people in society with very different views from himself. Here was a leader advocating minority rights and the principle of toleration. Yet he was faced with a deep intolerance of his own personal views. He is not the only Christian to have faced this difficulty, but his story is the most prominent.

In the years to come our society will have to work hard to find a way of ensuring that tolerance is not selective and that equality truly is for all.