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Tim Farron and the transformation of liberalism

Sixty years ago, Britain had a debate about homosexuality that Tim Farron must be pining for. After a string of high-profile trials, an inquiry led by Lord John Wolfenden took up the question of whether gay sex should be criminalised. The report’s conclusion – that it shouldn’t – was taken up by two prominent legal figures, academic H.L.A. Hart and Law Lord Patrick Devlin.

The famous Hart-Devlin debate makes for very strange reading in 2017. The question at its heart was whether the law should enforce moral standards against behaviour that didn’t affect anyone except the people involved. It was a dry argument, drawing heavily on old theories of liberalism, about whether the law had any business trying to impose private morality.

Farron was in the paper yesterday, claiming that people only tolerate Christians in public life as long as they don’t appear to be actually influenced by their Christian beliefs. But in reality he wasn’t hounded for the Christian basis of his beliefs. It was the content – rejected by most Christians and endorsed by many non-Christians – that got him in trouble. Farron’s problem was the same subtle but significant shift that makes Hart-Devlin seem so odd today. It never became completely clear what Tim Farron thinks about gay sex, but even in the worst case he lands squarely on the progressive side of that old argument: homosexuality might be immoral, but the government shouldn’t be telling people how to live their lives or discriminating against them.

What his election season woes illustrate is that social liberalism isn’t what it used to be. “Immoral, but shouldn’t be a crime” is not going to get you applause from LGBT rights groups in 2017. It’s the kind of thing you might say about adultery, or non-violent theft, and that doesn’t pass muster in progressive circles any more. The issue that became a stumbling block for Farron wasn’t about what the government should do, but about individual morality beyond the law.

This shift isn’t isolated. Last year, Hillary Clinton quietly altered an old Democratic mantra about abortion, that it should be “safe, legal, and rare”. The ‘rare’ here – at least in the context of a Democratic Party committed to ensuring access – doesn’t mean anything for government action. It was a way of satisfying the policy preference of pro-choice groups whilst giving a nod to pro-lifers, by affirming that abortion is troubling at the level of personal morality. But then Clinton stopped saying it. Pro-choice groups are no longer happy with a policy commitment: they want an acknowledgement that abortion is okay.

Is this a strange litmus test, for people who are after all running to make policy rather than pass moral judgement on all our individual choices? Not that strange. Not many people think adultery should be a crime, but you might hesitate to employ or befriend a serial cheater. However hard you try, there’s a limit to how inclusive you can be in the way you run your party or government towards people you think are immoral.

Perhaps more importantly, politicians get asked questions and their answers shape public discourse and conduct. A politician can be committed to legal and accessible abortion, but if their speeches and questions paint a picture of women who have abortions as tragic figures forced into regrettable actions, they’re – in a way that’s less coercive, but still real – making it harder to make that choice and get on with your life.

Judging politicians by their beliefs about individual morality as well as questions of policy is a real change. It induces some hand-wringing about whether we’re effectively barring people from public life on the basis of private moral views they have no desire to impose on others. But if you recognise that politicians’ impact on society isn’t limited to their votes, it’s a change that’s unavoidable.