Thursday, 6 March 2014

It's Nick v Nigel - but I'd prefer a debate

Nick Clegg: Can he convince undecideds on Europe?
In case some of you were unaware, an incredibly significant poll is to be held in a few months.

I’m not talking about the Scottish independence referendum, either.

In May the country will vote on who it wants to represent it in the European parliament. It’s going to be a tough test for the Liberal Democrats – party president Tim Farron has publicly admitted as much – and there is a possibility that our representation could be reduced to previously unthinkable levels. Here in Scotland George Lyon, a progressive voice of reason in Brussels, has his work cut out to retain his seat; elsewhere across the UK Lib Dems face challenges from Labour, a resurgent UKIP and potentially also the Green Party.

Given that, in the aftermath of recent electoral reversals, these were never going to be easy elections for our party I have been impressed by our determination to take a firmly pro-European stance. For a European federalist like me, who considers the party’s position on Europe to be a primary factor in determining my membership of it, this has been long overdue. I accept, naturally, that we have been historically the most pro-European of the three major parties but too often in the past we’ve shied away from the strong rhetoric of conviction on this issue, wilfully opting not to be too closely identified with the unpopular cause of the EU. The logic of the increasingly polarising issues of immigration and Europe demanded we tackle them directly and honestly; electoral expediency and populism demanded something different.

And so is it, I believe, a welcome development that such caution has finally been put to bed. Perhaps it is because the leadership realise that we no longer have anything to lose and may well gain from being openly pro-Europe. Perhaps it is because, unlike previous leaders, Nick Clegg is at his heart a European. Perhaps it is due more to the UKIP phenomenon and how the Lib Dems hope to counter it. Whatever the rationale behind the decision, it is overdue and welcome. Europe should be at the forefront of our thinking, our identity and our political future. The SNP also understands this, while Labour prefers to content itself watching the Tories tie themselves in knots over it.

In Scotland, the strength of the pro-EU SNP means that UKIP will inevitably be an irrelevance north of the border. Elsewhere, however, it is a different story altogether. This is a party that knows how to use both the PR system and its one star performer to its advantage, as witnessed by the considerable progress made by UKIP in recent years. That this has been tempered by revelations about the unsavoury nature of some UKIP representatives, laughably inaccurate predictions of the numbers of Bulgarian and Romanian incomers, and the inability to make the electoral breakthrough is an undeniable statement of truth; however, there can be no evading another reality – that, while hardly scaling the heights achieved by the SDP in the early 80s, UKIP support has steadily increased. Not only do they strike a populist chord on Europe and immigration, but (in the absence of another strong fourth party in England) are able to do what the Liberal Democrats once did best – appeal to the “anti-politics” vote and masquerade as an alternative to the self-serving political establishment.

On the one hand there are the Liberal Democrats: committed to federalism, human rights, a strong Europe, a realistic view of Britain’s place in the world, pluralism and co-operation. On the other is UKIP, fronted by Nigel Farage – proponents of a curious mixture of romanticised, historically inaccurate notions of British identity and dangerously right-wing policy ideas. There could not be two more diametrically opposed parties, and there could not be two more different perspectives on the question of Britain’s future in Europe.

And so, inevitably, a debate between the leaders of the Lib Dems and UKIP has been perceived to make good TV. Perhaps it will. What it almost certainly won’t be is an informed debate, with the potential to reach out to those who are undecided. It will serve the interests and agenda of Nigel Farage far more than it will those of Nick Clegg. While Clegg has recently appeared to welcome such a debate, the fact is he has overreached himself and fails to perceive that the “opportunity” is fraught with danger.

Clegg will want to take on UKIP directly.  He will seek to expose the myths, challenge the lies and suppositions, and make the case for continued British membership of the EU. He understands that if he hurts Farage, he hurts UKIP. There can be no doubting his political courage, but there remain questions surrounding his judgments. 

One problem that Nick Clegg has in this debate format is that he’s in the unfamiliar position of being cast as a figure of the establishment. That’s a challenge for any Lib Dem leader, not least one who is the prominent member of an unpopular government. This will be something that Farage will inevitably seize upon, to his advantage. Clegg now longer is seen as an “alternative”, as he was in the 2010 debates, but at best a product of the mainstream three-party political “elite” so derided by UKIP and indeed many voters.

Another problem for Clegg is likely to be in his tactics. There seems to be little doubt that he wishes to focus on the cerebral, the logical, and the intellectual case for Europe. He will no doubt come across as measured, sensible, rational and perhaps even passionate in his championing of the case for “in”. He will focus on systematically dismantling the UKIP arguments, intelligently pointing out the flaws and shortcomings in their various positions, countering myths and assumptions with factual evidence.

The difficulty with this strategy is that it assumes the most effective weapon with which to defeat UKIP is reason. Hence, Clegg is out to win minds. If, however, anything has been learned in the last year it is that UKIP has not suffered as expected when it has been shown that their leader disagrees with the manifesto, that their elected representatives include such deluded individuals as a man who believes gay people cause bad weather, that their predictions of mass immigration from Bulgaria and Romania were wildly inaccurate or that their MEPs happily collect generous expenses for the very minimum of work.  Sections of the public do not vote for them because of their well-considered, responsible policies but because Nigel Farage knows how to successfully appeal to the emotional. He appeals to more than mere logic, which is a lesser tool in winning the hearts of voters than either patriotism or personal charm – something of which he is more than aware.

This is a battle of reason versus populism and logic versus charisma. There is no obvious winner in such contests, but the picture is complicated by the fact that it is more difficult to win people over if they’re already convinced you’re dishonest. Is Clegg likely to appeal to any undecideds? Is it probable that he could convince any Euroskeptic voters that they’re wrong? If Clegg's objective is the former, then he is almost certainly the wrong person; if the latter, he is entirely deluded. Farage, on the other hand, tends to do very well in these kinds of situations and knows how to effectively reach out to voters who, in truth, don't entirely buy his political philosophy.

The televised debate is an opportunity, of course, for both Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats. But there can be no denying that UKIP stands to gain the most and that they have very little to lose. Clegg, on the other hand, is risking a great deal in banking on his personal ability to deal UKIP an unlikely knockout blow.  Unfortunately for Clegg, crushing UKIP is not merely a question of destroying their arguments, but defeating their appeal and the reasons behind it.

And, ultimately, should Clegg fail in his self-appointed quest there will be far-reaching ramifications for his leadership, for our party and, potentially, for Europe. There were reasons why Cameron and Miliband refused to take part in the debate, and for once I honestly wish Clegg had followed their lead. I wish him every success, not only because I identify with his arguments, but because I fear the consequences of anything less than an inspiring and utterly convincing performance.

It not simply for these reasons I am suspicious of the televised debate. Of course Clegg v Farage is sure to make good TV. But a duel between two leaders of radically different parties is not a valid substitute for the informed public conversation that is needed on our future relationship with the EU. In focusing on personalities, the BBC has created a forum that will be good for headlines and a media obsessed with scrutinising performances, but less likely to engage with the real issue – the nature of our relationship with Europe.

This “debate” risks making the European elections a referendum on Nick Clegg . We cannot afford to lose sight of the reality that these elections are about so much more than personality and prejudice...or indeed UKIP.  There is an important debate to be had, but I doubt a polarising televised spat between an unpopular Deputy Prime Minister and an egomaniacal right-winger is the way to facilitate it.

The debate will be shown on BBC2 on Wednesday 2nd April 2014.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Having seen her performances in the Scotland Tonight debates, Nicola Sturgeon v Nigel Farage would be a much more fascinating debate contest!