‘The reactionary liberalism of Tim Farron’ – A Response

I recently read the following article by Nick Barlow, on the topic of Tim Farron’s recent statements about J.K. Rowling:


There are two points in this article I want to address. Firstly, the specific issue of differing views on free speech within the liberal tradition. The point being made in the first part of the article is that Farron takes a very specific view of free speech – a maximalist interpretation identified with the liberal tradition of Mill – and then tries to label it to be ‘the one true liberalism’. As Nick rightly points out in the article, Farron is wrong to do this, as there are prominent dissenting viewpoints about free speech within the liberal tradition, most notably that of Karl Popper. The problem with this is that Nick gives us no reason to prefer his views on free speech to those of Farron. Sure, he points out that there are some liberals like Popper who do not agree with a Millian view of free speech, but he only uses this to illustrate the fact that there is no one settled view of free speech within liberalism – Nick gives no actual argumentation as to why Popper’s view is to be preferred, just an assumption that those who prefer Mill’s view only do so because he is easier to read than Popper. This point is laughable – On Liberty may be an easier text than The Open Society and Its Enemies, but my disagreement with Popper on this issue is based on Rawls, and A Theory of Justice makes The Open Society look like The Little Prince. He accuses Millians of just taking the views of 18th and 19th century writers without any critical reflection, but what does he have to say to those of us who have actually read Popper’s views and find them lacking, besides for snark?

The second issue somewhat leads on from this. Nick argues, following Osita Nwanevu’s typology, that Farron falls into a ‘reactionary liberalism’ which sees problems around free speech as the only remaining issues to be solved in society, while ignoring material considerations. If this ‘reactionary liberalism’ does exist within the party, then Tim Farron certainly isn’t it – Farron became leader off the back of his period as President, where he was the most vocal critic of the coalition government’s austerity measures. Tim has long been a member of the party’s visibly progressive, ‘social liberal’ wing, championing the fight against taking seriously the fight against enslavement by ‘poverty, ignorance and conformity’. To argue that he’s some bourgeois libertarian blind to the material concerns of voters is a blindingly vapid interpretation of his time as a Liberal Democrat MP. Nick himself concedes this, saying that he ‘always felt that (Farron) was strongly in the progressive camp and committed to that social liberal view that the material was of vital importance’, but then also seemingly arguing that Tim’s views on free speech somehow completely negates his track-record as an MP. This, I feel, highlights the most fundamental hypocrisy of the article – Nick starts by highlighting how ‘odd and offensive’ it is for Farron to stake a claim to ‘real’ liberalism, but then seems to take the view that any deviation from Nick’s own interpretation of social liberalism, such as holding a Millian view of free speech, is enough to have one typified as a ‘reactionary liberal’ concerned only with ‘individualistic arguments about freedom of speech’, even on the part of the party’s most recognisable social liberal. Note, of course, that Nwanevu’s article writes off such ‘reactionary’ liberals as ‘most guilty of the illiberalism they claim has taken over the American left’. (As an aside, I would be very wary of regarding Osita Nwanevu as any sort of arbiter of what is and isn’t liberal. A staff writer at The New Republic, hired in its avowedly ‘progressive’ new stance under Win McCormack’s ownership, he’s the sort of left-of-Bernie socialist soft-peddler who seems to direct more ire towards the Democratic Party for not being as left-wing as he would like than he does towards the Republicans, and whose Twitter feed is full of the sorts of people who unironically use ‘liberal’ as an insult). Despite the outward typology of there being two different liberalisms, Nick pretty clearly sees these ‘reactionaries’ as somehow deficient in their liberalism – ‘Liberalism should be about challenging unaccountable power and working to lift up those trampled underfoot by it, not providing a rhetorical smokescreen for them to hide behind. We used to think Tim Farron was keen on the former, sadly now he seems to have devoted himself to the latter.’

I’ll lay out my cards – I take the Millian view that social pressure can be just as large as threat to freedom of thought and expression as any other form of restriction, but I also think Tim was silly to go out and bat for J.K. Rowling, as someone with such affluence and fame really isn’t being silenced. Nick is right to point out that there is lots of debate about what liberalism is and isn’t, and that these debates have raged since the foundation of liberalism. Nick seems eager to point out this broadness of opinion within liberalism in protest of Tim’s claims to be a ‘real’ liberal, but then with the very next breath opines that his own interpretation of liberalism is somehow more ‘real’ than that of Tim. Nwanevu is guilty of this himself, by arguing that a liberalism that places more emphasis on the freedom of speech than on the freedom of association is somehow ‘illiberal’. He may be right that more focus must be placed on the importance of freedom of association, but that is a debate to take place *within* the bounds of liberalism, not by excluding and denouncing those who disagree with his view.

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