I don’t know what the viewing figures were, but I was one of those who tuned in to BBC2 at 7.00pm yesterday to the second of two ‘live’ television debates between Nick Clegg (the Lib-Dem leader) and Nigel Farage (his UKIP counterpart), this time chaired by the BBC’s venerable anchor David Dimbleby.
First, a declaration of political interest.
I didn’t have any. As my regular readers know, although I am fascinated by watching, or observing, the political process in action, I never have and never will vote in any political election, local or national. That is, unless it becomes compulsory, in which case I shall spoil my ballot paper and/or vote for the most unlikely and comical candidate in the list. Partly, this stance springs from my realisation in the late 1960s that mainstream British politics had far less to do with principles than with the ‘game’ of – once in every while – persuading the public by whatever means to vote for you … and then, if successful, wallowing the trappings and machinations of life in the Westminster Village and, ultimately, if by chance you can manage this, in government.
This revelation brought me to a lifelong cynicism towards the political class and a healthy disrespect for anyone who, sincerely or otherwise, claims that they are driven by an inner desire to serve the British public and do what is best for Britain. I’ve often repeated my statement that, by legislative decree if necessary, anyone who confesses to a desire to enter politics should be automatically barred from doing so.
Caveats thus registered, I now turn to last night’s event.
Being an agnostic – if that is the appropriate term for someone who just ‘doesn’t know the answer’ – on the fundamental issue of the moment (i.e. whether de facto Britain’s interests would be better served by being in or out of the EU), I personally came to the debate primarily to decide for myself which of the protagonists performed better (or is it ‘came across better’?) … and then, out of interest, to check whether the media pundits, and the YouGov metaphorical ‘exit’ poll of television viewers, agreed with my verdict.
There seemed a lot more riding on this second debate. The first one, organised by the LBC radio station, was a bit of a rehearsal. The BBC was now involved in staging this second one. As previously mentioned, they’d wheeled out David Dimbleby as chairman.
Both the BBC and Sky had ‘slaved’ their 24/7 news channels to covering even the coverage of the event. This resulted in a surreal opportunity (if you channel-hopped back and forth fast enough), to watch Kay Burley of Sky News reporting to camera or interviewing politicians in the foreground … with, over her shoulder, across the ‘green room’ bar, Norman Smith – the BBC’s political correspondent – to be seen trying to drown her out whilst doing similar. And vice versa.
Talk about overkill.
Farage was the unknown quantity. Okay, being – of the two – clearly the kind of guy you’d far prefer to go down the pub and have a pie and a pint with, he was potentially the ‘people’s champion’.
But this was now the big league. The analysts were watching. The fact-checkers were on hand to pronounce. Farage was like the guy who had perfected a passable swallow dive off the three-metre board behind closed doors at his local municipal swimming baths and was now required, not only to execute one off the ten-metre equivalent in the Olympic pool, but to do so in public in front of millions of television viewers from around the world.
For me, however, Clegg was the loser.
Not because Farage won hands down. To be honest, the best that could be said for him was that – to continue the diving analogy – he didn’t make a complete horlicks of it. Plus, I felt, he did okay at reacting ‘off the cuff’ to developments as they happened, not least Dimbleby’s interventions, which included at one point calling him (Farage) ‘Nick’.
Clegg came off second, in my view, because – I assume naturally, as surely his entourage would have warned him against it – he couldn’t help projecting himself as the smug, conceited, Establishment man. The career politician who knew it all. The man who, now having had experience of government, understood the endless complications of geo-politics, in obvious contrast to his opponent.
In summary, Clegg came across as acutely condescending towards Farage and his arguments. By implication also, therefore, to anyone who disagreed with his own assertive views, whether they be Farage supporters, EU sceptics, or just those – like me – who hadn’t yet formed any view on the issues being discussed.
It was a case of ‘Trust me, I know better than any of you’.
His oft-stated position on an ‘in-out’ EU referendum was that he was 100% committed to one, but only as and when, at some point in the future, any new EU initiative required member countries to formally cede more powers to Brussels (or is it Strasbourg?), i.e. a new form of the 2007 Lisbon Treaty.
He then spent the remainder of his time allotted to the ‘Britain – in or out?’ issue pontificating about how he was absolutely convinced that being in the EU was better for Britain than being out of it, i.e. in terms of jobs, prosperity and British influence upon global events.
To this viewer, Clegg’s position was inherently illogical.
If he’s so fundamentally convinced that being in the EU is best for Britain – and he said he would fight to the end for this cause – then what possible purpose, in his eyes, is there in having an referendum on the EU at all?
To pretend that he supports an ‘in-out’ referendum – whether this should happen after any next ‘Lisbon Treaty’-type shift of powers, as he says, or at any other time before or after that – is codswallop of the first order.
For, if Clegg is right in his arguments that Britain is better off in a market of 500 million customers, that 3 to 4 million British jobs are linked to the EU, that Britain gains far more influence in the world by being in the EU than it would ever do by being out of it … then surely all those things remain the case, irrespective of how much more British power to decide issues for itself, and make its own legislation, is handed over to the EU?
In which case, why have a referendum at all?
Especially since – as Farage pointed out last night in one exchange – a referendum might produce an inconvenient result that you (and the EU) might not want?