Nick v Nigel: My first thoughts

by Stephen Tall on March 26, 2014

nickvnigelThis was Mr Angry v Mr Reasonable.

Nick Clegg started with one advantage – he’s a veteran of leaders’ debates – and one big disadvantage – his pro-Europeanism is unfashionable. Tonight, though, the Clegg of 2010 was back on show. He looked directly down the camera lens at the viewer, hand nonchalently in pocket, first-named the questioners.

It was (and yes, I would say this wouldn’t I but it doesn’t make it any less true) a class act from Nick. His crisp opening statement framed the key point we wanted to make: staying in Europe is about jobs, jobs, jobs. His final soundbite – “I want us to be Great Britain, not little England” – captured his optimistic outward-looking vision of the UK leading Europe.

Nigel Farage had his moments – his populism was passionate – but his inexperience showed. At times, especially when challenged over dubious Ukip statistics, he was rattled. He grew redder and redder as the debate wore on. Applause for his clap-lines was muted. Yet this was a victory of sorts: he shared a stage with the Deputy Prime Minister. Ukip has arrived for sure.

I kept reading (I may also have written it myself) that this debate wouldn’t have shifted people’s views. I’m not so sure. It’s rare now for the pro-European case to be advanced with as much vigour and clarity as Nick Clegg did. It’s rare for the anti-European arguments to be challenged as they forcibly were tonight.

These debates on their own won’t transform views. But they will make the vast majority of the public – who sit somewhere between Lib Dem pro-Europeanism and Ukip isolationism – far more aware of the arguments for staying in the EU. And they will galvanise pro-Europeans across all parties to defend their ground.

It was a good night’s work from Mr Reasonable.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.