Tuesday, April 8, 2014

The Clegg-Farage Debates: It Was Nick Wot Lost It

One point was lost amongst all the debates about the Clegg-Farage outcome. The number of Conservative and UKIP supporters, as well as anti-Clegg Labourites, far outweighs the number of Liberal Democrat supporters. Given this fact, it would be virtually impossible for Nick Clegg to win any sort of opinion poll over Nigel Farage.

Having said that, in my view, the first debate was a low scoring draw, where neither impressed. But no such doubt with the second debate. Farage found a strong finish to bring home the bacon. Not a 'wipe the floor' victory that the media have been telling you about, and will doubtless continue to build up as such, but a victory nonetheless.

I felt it was more of a case of Nick losing rather than Nigel winning. We have seen Nigel Farage wilt under fire on television and perhaps Nick, buoyed by his 2010 success, and the fact that he can take on 500 hostile MPs in one go, took Nigel too lightly. But to me the mistake was to play the man and not the ball.

What I wanted to see was Nick calmly and professionally list the reasons why it is in the UK's interests to stay in the European Union. No-one says the EU's institutions are perfect, far from it, but there are positive reasons - jobs, business, trade, opportunities to travel, live and study. Nigel can then list, in his opinion, the reasons why the UK would be 'better off out'. Each can then counter the others' points and the viewers, most of whom are undecided, will then be better informed to make up his or her own mind.

Instead Nick decided to directly attack Farage and UKIP. This would be effective if the debate was between two parties, but it is irrelevant to the overall issue of whether we should be in or out. Farage may be an admirer of Vladimir Putin, that point is noted, but waving old UKIP leaflets around was irrelevant to the discussion.

To counter this, Nigel did not directly attack Clegg and the Liberal Democrats, but instead attacked 'the political class', a far more effective tool by including Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems as part of the political establishment, at a time when the reputation of politicians is at an all-time low.

Of course the political establishment consists of the Conservative and Labour parties, who will join forces to defend the status quo to the death. I have previously argued that the Lib Dems and UKIP are actually on the same side as the 'others', those on the outside who want political reform, and whom the ConLabs wish to keep out. But Farage was able to disregard UKIP's own misdemeanours and skilfully portray himself as the leader of the 'anti-politician's faction.

Nick overdid the facts and stats. Do 7% of laws come from the EU or is it 75% or is it somewhere in between? The EU is such a bureaucratic mess that I doubt if anyone knows, but let's just leave it that some laws do. And if one has done one's homework, any case study and examples on one side can be countered by case studies and examples on the other.

And I outwardly groaned when, to the question of how the EU would look ten years from now, Nick said 'much the same as it is now.' That's the last thing we want!

Nigel had his poor moments. In the first debate he was surprisingly very nervous. In the second, he almost fell apart at the start under Clegg's attack over the Ukraine, but once on more familiar territory regained his composure and, as I said, had a strong finish.

Immigration is, of course, UKIP's trump card, which is why they talk of little else, and Nigel played it well. The positive side of the freedom of movement of people - including the opportunities for UK citizens - was completely disregarded.

David Cameron has, in my opinion, come up with some interesting ideas for future expansion - very unusual for a Conservative party leader. Clegg could have praised Cameron in his efforts here, which would have had the happy side-effect of stoking the Conservative civil war.

Overall, my assessment is that Nigel did not win the debates but Nick lost them through the wrong tactics and arguments. Anyone who was undecided and hoping to be better educated to make their own decision will be little the wiser.

Far be it for me to advise Nick Clegg on debating, and it is highly unlikely that one day I will be on TV debating the EU, but I think I would have taken a different approach. I am not here to defend the European Union but the reasons we should stay in are A, B and C, our membership has achieved D, E and F while we would like to see changes such as X, Y and Z.

And the EU ten years from now will NOT be the bureaucratic monster that you see at present, but hopefully an efficient streamlined democratic free trade body that we can be proud to be an active part of. (It is very unlikely to be like that ten years from now - but that's a better answer!).

In the 1975 referendum, as to whether we should stay in the EU, two years after we joined, a tactic used by the 'In' camp was to portray the 'Out' leaders as slightly unhinged - which, when you consider Michael Foot, Enoch Powell and Tony Benn, became an effective tool. For the next referendum (which is inevitable one day) this tactic might be repeated, as the 'out' camp is seriously short of credible leadership.

However, Britain's membership of the European Union is one of the most, if not the most, important topics out there. Although we lost this debate, raising the profile of the topic can only be good. I hope we see more debates but which focus on the issues and not on the individuals.

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