Wednesday, 2 April 2014

It's Nick v Nigel Part 2

Is this advert unwise and insensitive?
In case anyone missed the first pitched battle between the leader of UKIP and the Deputy Prime Minister, BBC2 are screening a further installment tonight.

Calling it a debate is, to use mild terms, more than disingenuous because it will not be a debate but a media circus. No realistic observer expects anything other. This kind of "debate" is also an affront to real political conversation, not to mention an embarrassment for those of us who believe in facilitating the kind of dialogue that engages, empowers and informs - which has been exchanged for what is alleged to make good television: namely, two men (it would be men, wouldn't it?) with entrenched views trading put-downs and insisting they are right. Is this how we should be debating complex policy issues in the 21st century?

The real problem I have with this kind of televised debate is the media obsession with determining a "winner", as if political discussion is akin to a boxing match. Clegg has fallen into this way of thinking, naively believing that his logical and reasoned approach could land a knock-out punch to Farage. He was wrong on this score. For all his rational and utterly sensible rhetoric on the night, he failed to appreciate two key facts: firstly, political victories are not forged through logic but through trust and, secondly, that the appeal to the emotional is a powerful political weapon. It came as no surprise to me that many judged Farage as the "winner" in spite of having a poor grasp of basic facts (he surmised that 75% of UK laws originated in Brussels whereas the reality is about 7%, and made the elementary error of asserting the European Court of Human Rights was an EU organisation) because he understands this and recognises how to exploit it to his advantage.

The obsession with identifying a "winner" defeats what should be the prime purpose of political discourse - to empower the public to arrive at informed decisions. At times, the last televised debate bore more resemblance to a schoolyard spat or, I would suggest, two evangelical preachers arguing over which was the more ideologically correct. And while, as a strongly pro-European Liberal Democrat, I find it hard to disagree with any of Clegg's arguments, I was unsure how his approach would win any converts. It's is right to take the fight to UKIP and it is right to dismantle their arguments, but whether it should be done in this format, and whether Nick Clegg was the right person to do it, is highly questionable. Farage doesn't have to win the intellectual argument if he can successfully paint his opponent as a discredited, distrusted member of the self-interested political establishment. Neither does he have to support his facts if he can appeal instead to the emotional, the patriotic and the populist.

There is a need for a real debate on Britain's future within the EU, and for too long the initiative has been handed to UKIP who have been effectively been allowed to lead with their narrow-minded xenophobia and laughably romantic views of Britain's identity and role in the world. It is indeed a political conversation that the Liberal Democrats should take an active role in. However, a forum which reduced debate to a spat between rival personalities with what many would consider extreme views on Europe (most people are neither strongly in the "in" nor the "out" camp but, as in the case of the Scottish independence question, actually want something in the middle) is not how to best achieve it - and not only because Clegg will inevitably come off second best, but because these forthcoming European elections are about so much more than personality, UKIP and pleasing the media. Clegg's approach has essentially confirmed that the pending elections are about UKIP, which should delight Farage and his party immensely.

The Lib Dem PR machine has come in for a bit of criticism from me in the past, and it does again today. In advance of tonight's second round of the macho punch-up, the Press Office have put out a flyer praising Nick Clegg's courage. As well they might - while I doubt his strategic wisdom I do not doubt his bravery. However, unwisely and insensitively, it refers to Ed Miliband and David Cameron as being "missing in action". The use of such a military term is inappropriate for many reasons, and indeed is entirely wrong (the phrase refers to those who go missing, often presumed dead, while heroically involved in conflict - not those who refuse to carry out their duties, as seems to be the inference here). However, it's also in poor taste given what many families have had to ensure in recent years when their loved ones genuinely are "missing in action". There has been worse material put out by the party (and others) in recent years, but this says a great deal about the thinking of our party's PR machine and its need to more carefully consider potential ramifications.

It is also wrong to accuse the leaders of the Conservative and Labour parties of desertion. Firstly, Nick Clegg did not necessarily want a debate with them, but with UKIP. Secondly, there are several perfectly valid and understandable reasons why they are well-advised to distance themselves from this kind of debate. They realise the risks and dangers. They appreciate that it will, in all likelihood, be of most benefit to Nigel Farage. They have not abandoned their responsibilities but have instead arrived at the conclusion that debating with Nigel Farage is about as sensible as sharing a platform with Alex Salmond.

And I won't go into any detail on the objectionable "British jobs" quote - but I have to ask if it was really necessary.

While I am naturally pleased that the Liberal Democrats have made clear their determination to be the party of "in", it is unfortunate that we are putting out material suggesting we are the only such party, as if we want to be the only show in town. In doing do, we overlook Ed Miliband's personal commitment to the EU and the opportunities that should give to the pro-European movement. There is scope for a cohesive, cross-party, diverse campaign for continued British involvement - that could tackle UKIP's untruths while simultaneously championing a more fit-for-purpose EU - but that won't be achieved by an emphasis on personalities and the party-political, which only plays into UKIP's hands.

No doubt, while watching tonight's debate, I will find little on which to disagree with Nick. Other, that is, than his misguided strategy and the hubris-fuelled delusion that he is the man to deliver a finishing blow to Farage. This won't be a debate, but a show and a point-scoring contest - a contest which will do little to inform public opinion, but whose winner will be determined by it. C'est la vie nouvelle de la politque.

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