Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Clegg-Farage - The View from the Stalls

I was in the studio audience for the BBC's Nigel Farage vs Nick Clegg debate this evening. It was an irritating and disappointing experience.

To start with, even by TV standards, the arrangements were self-important. We had to be there for 4.30 pm, two and a half hours before kick-off. Nothing happened in that period except for an absurd level of security. An old man was being given grief because the number on his driving licence had a digit different to the number he'd given when contacted by the silly marketing company who were handling the tickets.

So I was far from gruntled even before we started. I was slightly cheered up by the soundcheck, when the two protagonists were asked what they'd done today. Clegg looked smug as he namedropped that 'actually' he'd met Bill Gates. Farage said he'd failed to live up to his attempt at self-discipline: he tries not to drink till 6 o'clock, but he yielded to temptation and went to the pub at lunchtime.

But then I got annoyed again by the debate itself. I want to believe in the European Union. I want to be convinced that Britain should remain a member. But Clegg, as the most Europhile party leader in the country, has nothing to say except for childish jibes at Farage for being out-of-date and for daring to voice a dissident argument on the Ukrainian crisis.

Clegg says that being in the EU makes us 'richer, stronger and safer'. As opposed to that poverty-stricken, weak, terrorist-infested Switzerland, presumably.

Asked about the philosophical underpinning to his support for the EU, Clegg can offer us only 'jobs, jobs, jobs'. Is that really it? That's not philosophy. That's not a belief. I know there's an economic argument to be made, but if that's all there is, then we might as well give up and leave the EU. It needs something more than that to justify the pooling of sovereignty. (I'm trying to be reasonably neutral in my language.)

Clegg repeats that we have to have a seat at the table if we're going to shape the future of Europe. But we've been a member for over forty years. It's time to point to our achievements. What have we done in all that time to shape Europe? How is the EU different because of our membership? What use have we made of our seat at the table?

I don't know the answers to those questions. And Clegg didn't tell me. Perhaps he doesn't know either. And perhaps that's because we've actually achieved sod all. If so, then maybe we've been wasting our time all these years.

Then there were the bits where Clegg was deliberately lying. He says that being in the EU means that we can negotiate trade deals as part of a big economic power bloc. But if we leave the EU, we'd have to negotiate new deals with each of the 27 member nations. What? They'd stop negotiating as a bloc if we left?

Farage claims that our imports from the EU exceed our exports to the EU and that therefore they'd be keen to do a deal if we left. Clegg's response is that 50 per cent of our exports go to the EU, but only 7 per cent of their exports come to Britain. That's not comparing like with like. That's apples and eggs.

Why is Clegg dissembling and trying to mislead? Is it because the case for Europe is so weak that all he has in his locker are ad hominem attacks on Farage and lies? I hate to think so, but I fear it may be the truth.

I learnt something this evening. I went in wanting to be enthused about Europe. I came out feeling (yet again) that Farage is a likeable buffoon who has some reasonable questions. Sadly, I didn't hear a single answer from Clegg. And he's the one who supports the EU. Piss poor.