One of the perks of working for IVP is that it is part of the SPCK Group, which means occasionally I find myself reading SPCK books on may way to or from work. One of these is Tim Farron’s new book, A Better Ambition: Confessions of a Faithful Liberal which has been somewhat overshadowed by the over-long David Cameron book, but is a beautiful bit of writing. Farron, for those who don’t know, is a Liberal Democrat (henceforth Lib Dem) Member of Parliament (henceforth MP) who served for two tumultuous years as leader of the Lib Dems, before stepping down. A Better Ambition is two books in one – the story of Tim Farron and especially his political life (which is by no means over), and a simple introduction to and clarion call for the classic tradition of English liberalism.
As a biography/memoir, A Better Ambition works well. Farron is likeable, writes well, and a pretty open book. Sometimes he is a bit too much of an open book – certainly some Christians will not appreciate his swearing and references to smoking – but this is a very honest book. Farron’s explanation of his own journey with faith, politics and self-understanding is fascinating, and endearingly self-deprecating: “Someone once said that ‘politics is showbiz for ugly people’ so maybe that explains why I went from that pretentious egocentric lifestyle to the one I currently have”, which is with reference to his musical career/talents, on which he comments “at 16 I had one of those reedy, pained and pretentious voices typical of the era – somewhere between David Sylvian and Morrissey, but, of course, much worse than either of them”. Hidden in amongst these humorous lines, however, are some relatively serious points. For example, “Most of those who were involved in student politics, I discovered, didn’t engage in real politics”. This self-awareness and simple calling a spade a spade is a hallmark of this book – but this should not be confused with simplicity. There is some serious thinking in this book.
Interwoven amongst reflections on his political career – not least his role as Lib Dem party leader, “No one (at least no one sane) is going to describe me as one of the great party leaders… however I am one of the few who achieved their major objective because, at the time of writing at least, the Lib Dems still exist!” – are helpful articulations of what Farron means by liberalism. Hint: more complex and attractive than you’d think. Despite historically not being someone who would vote Labour/Lib Dem (though I have), Farron’s presentation is incredibly well explained and attractive. For example, “To many, liberalism and Christianity seem strange bedfellows. I’ve never understood why this should be so. After all, those who founded the Liberal Party in the UK were mostly Christians”. Without spoiling the book, I’d suggest that for Christians in the UK (and perhaps beyond, but Farron is helpfully specific) it is worth reading for this set of ideas alone – I think Farron makes a great case for liberalism in the UK, particularly around issues of freedom of speech (for which Farron ultimately stepped down as leader – this story is fascinating but not the best part of the book in my opinion.
It’s worth noting that alongside the humour and the political thoughtfulness there is a rich vein of faith in this book. The subtitle Confessions of a Faithful Liberal gives this away – Farron is up front and honest about his faith, explaining a number of his better known political choices, and demonstrating the beautiful simplicity of the gospel and the way that Christians can and should be involved with politics. With that in mind, this book would make a great read for Christians considering a political career/input, or those involved in pastoring them.
Overall, A Better Ambition is an excellent book and I’m glad to have read it. Whilst I don’t agree with Farron politically, he is very clearly a brother in Christ with some amusing and intelligent things to say. I came away from reading the book encouraged that he is involved in our national political life, and inspired to pray for more like him to enter politics from a range of party perspectives.