I actually quite enjoyed the EU debate the other day. On the one hand, I felt a little less ashamed of my more naive 21 year-old self who voted LibDem in the 2010 general election; Clegg is good in debates. That wasn’t a good enough reason to vote for him and failed to convince most people (and time will show, that being good in a debate will fail to convince people to vote for Farage). I also liked it because, in spite of this, I was still able to dislike Clegg and none of his spin or sound-bite changed the fact that neither I nor anyone he lied to has forgiven him.
But, as I said, he was good in the debate. He knew his facts and he came across much more rational than Farage. Personally, I think the poll suggesting that Farage won the debate is very misleading given the question it asked. It was at least a draw. However, the following Cleggian mistakes call for comment.
Mistake 1 – Turning Up
No one likes you any more. Making yourself the poster boy for a cause you believe in is shooting yourself in the foot. At the very least, you should have only agreed to turn up if Milliband and a senior conservative were present. That way, Farage doesn’t look like the squeaky clean face of new politics and you like the filthy lying scum-bag face of old politics. This was the trick you used in the 2010 debates, remember? It worked for you, but now you’re more hated than was Gordon Brown then, and for better reasons. Always remember that you are a PR nightmare.
Mistake 2 – Taking Credit for Tory-Promised Policies
Apart from overusing the word “clout”, the phrase you seemed to use most was “The current government of which I am a part…” Fair enough, there are some things relevant to the EU debate that the coalition has done, in particular, the fact that any new treaty transferring power to Brussels now requires a referendum. But, considering that we all hate you because you went into coalition with the Tories in the first place, and this is one of the things the Tory’s promised before 2010 (a promise they actually kept) it only serves to remind us…
- How close you are to the Tories
- The fact that Government policy has been largely Tory despite the lack of electoral mandate and that, ignoring the number of seats, nearly a quarter of the country voted LibDem. Yet, you still bent over backward.
- That the Tories kept their promise and you didn’t.
Mistake 3 – Saying Clout too many Times
Fair enough, you wanted your sound-bite to something like “We can only have international clout as part of the EU”. But, saying a word over and over again reduces its force and meaning and makes it start to sound silly. If you say it a few more times it starts to become funny and loses all political sway.
Mistake 4 – Starting the Debate Talking about Us
The whole “This isn’t about politicians it’s about you” is annoying and also reminds us of the 2010 election when you lied to us and screwed us over.
Mistake 5 – Thinking that Facts and Figures can Get Rid of UKIP (a.k.a. Being a Liberal)
The way you handled the figures that Farage and UKIP were spouting about immigration and legislation was very good. You undermined almost every point simply by showing he was lying or, at best, woefully misinformed. But, all Farage had to do was say, “What this really comes down to is that I think the best people to rule the British People is the British People”. That is, it came down to ideology.
Now, ideology is not a bad thing. If anything, I think political discourse would be improved by some ideological positioning because it would start to inspire people again. And, that is what UKIP does. It invokes an ideological point that people can be convinced by and believe in. Facts and figures cannot be believed in. They are dull, unintelligent and uninspiring. Sprinkling a dust of facts over Farage’s arguments is never going to diminish their power, because the ideology invoked not only will survive the refutation of his argument, it is much older than his argument: nationalism.
Again, nationalism isn’t necessarily a bad thing; it isn’t equivalent with fascism. UKIP may be fascist and there have been plenty of scandals involving their members doing fascist things. In dealing with them, ask yourself are they fascist or not? If they are, then facts and figures will do nothing because within that ideology is the idea that thinking too hard is a bad thing. I mean, you can prove anything with facts.
If they are not fascist, then you still have to deal with the ideology of liberal nationalism. The idea that the seat of sovereignty needs to be the nation and not a continental power, be it the European Union or the Holy Roman Empire, is not a fascist idea. Nation States developed as a way out of imperial tyranny and are liberal in origin. Ultimately, the larger the state the more difficult it is to have democratic accountability. And, since we can’t even get democratic accountability in a state as small as the UK right (compare the LibDem percentage vote to the LibDem seats in parliament), the chances of the British people being adequately represented in the EU, if it continues to become more like a United States of Europe than an economic entity, are slight.
The fact is, whether or not this liberal nationalism is what Farage is invoking, it is what liberal minded people will hear. That is the cleverness of it. He can say the same thing to people from the whole political spectrum and they will all hear something different. The centre ground hear what I just recounted. The right hear the encroachment of Johnny Foreigner on the Queen’s sovereignty. The left hear the neoliberalism of the EU making nationalisation harder and potentially illegal. Ultimately, the question “Shouldn’t the seat of power still be Westminster not Brussels?” is completely legitimate. And, you should have either emphasised that Farage is exaggerating the amount of power that the EU has and that the vast majority of EU legislation is good legislation. You could then advance an ideological argument that convinces people to engage in European politics more and actually care who their MEPs are. If you do, Farage will lose his seat for sure.
Alternatively, you should have had the guts to say “I disagree. It is no longer the case that economic and social prosperity can be guaranteed for Britain as an independent nation. We need a political union with our neighbours because the world has changed. We are no longer an empire, and that is a good thing. But now, while we’re in masses of debt, our old colonies are gaining in power and they will be the superpowers of the 21st Century, not the UK and probably not even the US or Russia. Global power is shifting to the East. The only chance of the UK remaining a developed nation is by closer union with Europe and seeing ourselves as Europeans first and Britons second. ‘Britain for the British’ is nothing but a requiem to a by-gone age.”
But then, if you’d had the guts to say that you’d have had the guts to say no to a ConDem coalition.