21st Mar 2018


Farage and Clegg clash in long-awaited EU debate

  • Nick Clegg went head to head with Nigel Farage on Wednesday (Photo: Liberal Democrats)

On Wednesday evening (26 March), courtesy of LBC radio, the BBC and Sky, the UK public were treated to something UKIP leader Nigel Farage claimed his party had "waited a very long time for": a head-to-head debate between Farage and Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg on Britain's membership of the European Union.

It should have featured the leaders of the Labour and Conservative parties, too, but they made their excuses weeks ago. Labour's Ed Miliband had called any such debate a "sideshow", and UK prime minister David Cameron, in contrast to deputy prime minister Clegg, said he was "too busy running the country". "Well, he's certainly running from something," quipped Farage.

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As a debate, it was quick, slick, and towards the end, a little sweaty. But despite the heat generated, there was not too much in the way of light. Figures and stats were chucked around like so much mud. And cheap shots were never too far away. Still, by the debate's close, the antagonists' main positions had at least become clear.

As Clegg reiterated during almost every question, be it on immigration or the role of the European Court of Human Rights, Britain's membership of the EU was vital because it provided jobs and "clout".

"If we cut ourselves off from Europe," he said, "our hard-won economic recovery will simply be thrown away." People will lose their jobs, he insisted. Investors will look elsewhere, other European countries won't be as co-operative, and the advantages of belonging to a huge trading bloc will disappear.

This then was Clegg's main appeal to the public. Stay in the EU or the economy has had it.

Farage did try to counter Clegg's sometimes scary rhetoric. "How many jobs [is UKIP] prepared to lose if we leave the EU – 3 million, 2 million, 500,000?," asked Clegg. Farage countered that "foreign investment is important, of course it is", but it is coming into the UK at "a greater rate than it is to countries inside the Eurozone". There is nothing to fear, and everything to gain from an EU exit, he claimed.

But like Clegg, it was UKIP's main argument against EU membership that kept re-emerging through the fog of the particular answers: "the best people to govern Britain are the British people themselves".

At every stage, Farage sought out this position.

On trade, he argued, Britain should be in a position to negotiate its own trade deals, not have the EU do it on its behalf; on the ECHR, Britain should be in a position to administer its own criminal justice system, and not have Strasbourg interfere; on immigration, Britain should be in a position to police its own borders and not have them forced open to nearly 500 million EU citizens (although Farage was particularly concerned with those countries previously "trapped behind the iron curtain" – Romania, Bulgaria).

Clegg was at pains to characterise this as UKIP's 'anti-EU dogma': "I'm not prepared to see anyone lose their jobs at the altar of Nigel Farage's anti-European dogma," he said at one point; "We shouldn't be sacrificing a single job just to satisfy [UKIP's] dogmatic view," he said at another.

Towards the end, Farage tired of Clegg's accusation of dogmatism, and repeated himself: "I will tell you what the dogma is: the best people to govern Britain are the British people themselves, and not the EU."

It was that kind of debate.

What had emerged by the end of the debate was not a set of clear, opposing policies, but two incommensurable positions. One in favour of continued EU membership on the pragmatic grounds of economic security; the other in favour of an EU exit on the principled grounds of national sovereignty.

There was something else, too. Throughout, Clegg talked of the importance of "facts". "We owe it to you [the audience], we owe it to everyone, to ensure that these debates are at least based on facts." The implication of Clegg's appeal was clear: UKIP is the party of untruths and fantasies, as Clegg attempted to show by pointing out a UKIP local election pamphlet which asserted that there were more Romanian immigrants heading Britain's way than there were actual Romanians – cue audience guffaws.

But in many ways this attempt to bash UKIP into the ground with "the facts", to present it as borderline delusional, as beyond the political pale, rather than defeat it with principled, political arguments, played into Farage's hands.

It allowed him to present himself as the political outsider, a man apart from the 'the career politician', a man with experience of the world beyond 'the political bubble of Westminster', a man from whom the likes of Clegg – or "you lot" as Farage called them throughout – are running scared.

And viewers seemed to agree. In a snap, after-show YouGov poll, 57 per cent thought that Nigel Farage had performed best compared to 36 per cent for Nick Clegg.

Clegg has a chance to make amends, though. A second live debate is to be held next Wednesday (2 April).

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