LAST week, as Theresa May dithered and swithered about whether she had a deal or no deal with the DUP, I had a pang of nostalgia for the comparatively simple days of 2010, when Nick Clegg’s gung-ho Liberal Democrats hopped swiftly into bed with the Tories.
The accepted narrative about that coupling is that Calamity Clegg traded his integrity for a taste of power, and the LibDem claim that they kept the Conservatives in check has been rubbished despite considerable evidence that it was true. In the UK, “coalition” has become a byword for unacceptable compromise.
So did the party really deserve the pasting they received? Did they make the best of a bad situation, or show their true colours when they cosied up to Cameron and co? In an effort to find out I reached for Coalition, the book billed as “the insider’s story” of the ConDem government. It was written by David Laws, the former MP for Yeovil in Somerset who help broker the coalition deal and was appointed Chief Secretary to the Treasury in May 2010.
It’s an engaging read, and Laws initially comes across as a nerdy eager beaver with lines such as “I was already loving my job and looking forward to spending Sunday and Monday preparing my Spending Review paper”.
But then, just 42 pages into the 572-word tome, he resigns.
I’d forgotten that Laws was among the half-a-dozen senior MPs forced out the door by the expenses scandal, let alone the exact reasons why. By the time he packed his bags and left the Treasury, public cynicism about money-grabbing MPs was sky high and special pleadings were worthless.
David Laws fell foul of Westminster expenses rules because he was gay
But Laws fell foul of the expenses rules because he was gay. He was 44 years old and living with a male partner, but their relationship was a secret. “All my life,” he later wrote, “I had chosen to keep my sexuality private, from my family, friends and colleagues.”
There was absolutely no doubt that by claiming expenses to rent rooms from his partner, Laws had broken the rules. But it was also clear that had he been honest, and made alternative claims that broke no rules, he would have cost the taxpayer more money, not less.
“I accept that I should have been more open and should have set a better example as a public figure,” he said, weeks after his resignation. He might have added: “but we are kidding ourselves if we think we yet live in a tolerant, liberal society.” He didn’t say that last part though. Seven years later, those were the words of Tim Farron as he resigned as leader of the Liberal Democrats.
Farron’s idea of a tolerant, liberal society is one in which people are not only free to hold intolerant views but are also entitled to get on with the job of leading political parties without people badgering them with distasteful questions about gay sex. It’s a la la land in which the personal is not the political and there’s no contradiction between being “passionate about equality” for LGBT people while dodging scrutiny about how you actually view them yourself.
Young people must find it a bit baffling that a grinning evangelical like Farron ever rose to the position of party leader
Young people must find it a bit baffling that a grinning evangelical like Farron ever rose to the position of party leader, or that an ambitious politician would go to extreme, rule-breaking lengths to keep his or her sexuality a secret. After all, doesn’t almost everyone agree it’s OK to be gay in this day and age? But it’s worth remembering how recent that acceptance really is. The first MP to come out while in office (Chris Smith of Labour) did so within the lifetime of the so-called millennial generation, and it wasn’t until 1997 that an out-and-proud candidate was elected to the House of Commons. When David Laws was born in 1965, consensual sex between two men was still illegal in every part of the UK.
Some point to Farron’s voting record when it comes to LGBT issues, holding up his support for gay marriage as proof of his “tolerant” attitude. But gay people do not want to be merely tolerated – they want to be loved and accepted and supported, just like everyone else. No amount of legislation will remove fear and anxiety about being openly gay as long as homophobic slurs are still heard in school, offices and football stadiums, and preachers are threatening eternal damnation for what consenting adults do in bed. All homophobia is a part of a continuum that ends in violence and murder.
Decades of lies cannot be brushed under the carpet with one gutsy rendition of I Am What I Am
Perhaps Farron believes that, had he not been pushed four years earlier, David Laws would have leapt out of the closet in 2014 when same-sex marriage was legalised in England. But decades of lies cannot be brushed under the carpet with one gutsy rendition of I Am What I Am, and anyone who claims to think otherwise is either dangerously naïve or plain stupid.
Farron is free to believe what he likes, but anyone who truly aspires to live in an equal society – not just in the letter of the law but in how human beings relate to each other in real life – should have no need to evade questions about the detail, and then play the victim when criticised for doing so. Farron wants to see more tolerance of intolerance, but he’s several decades out of date. Let’s hope the door didn’t hit him on the way out.
A version of this article first appeared in The National.