Clegg v Farage, round 2

This evening sees the second installment of Nick Clegg’s debate with Nigel Farage on the subject of Europe. Once again, I’ll be live-tweeting the debate as it happens. You can follow my tweets on Twitter, or follow the hashtag #europedebate for the whole conversation.

There’s been an interesting discussion since last week’s radio debate on whether it’s wise for pro-Europeans to focus so much on communicating the facts about the EU and exposing eurosceptic untruths, as I suggested last week (and as Nick Clegg mostly sought to do during the debate, albeit with limited success). In a thoughtful article for Open Democracy, Sunder Katwala argues that reducing a debate to an exchange of claim and counter-claim risks leaving the audience cold:

Both leaders inadvertently showed why many viewers will find their fact-based talking points a little slippery. ‘That’s the estimate we’ve made’ said Nigel Farage, when asked where his figures for the number of laws made in Brussels came from, before saying he could have picked a much higher number from another source. Meanwhile, Nick Clegg asked Farage what his figure was for lost jobs. ‘It might not be 3 million, it might be 2 million or 1 million’, he said. His point was that leaving wasn’t worth a single job. But both men had made their factual proofs sound rather elastic.

Katwala’s suggestion is that nobody is going to be convinced by a barrage of contradictory statistics. This is partly because each participant can simply dismiss his opponent’s claims as untrue, leaving the audience none the wiser — and partly because people are more likely to trust completely independent sources than politicians when it comes to assessing factual claims, and indeed unlikely to change their preconceptions when confronted with facts that undermine them:

When Ipsos MORI confronted survey participants, who had significantly  overestimated the proportion of migrants in Britain, with the ‘real’ figures the two most popular responses were: ‘I still don’t believe it’ and ‘those are the people you know about’.

So should we switch focus from cold, hard facts to anecdotes — as Katwala recommends, “deploy facts selectively, and animate them better with memorable stories and examples”?

Well, there is certainly some wisdom in this. Pro-Europeans are indeed sometimes guilty of spending so much time trying to counter eurosceptic deception that they forget to make the positive case for Europe — that’s why the very first ‘key issue’ on my website is a page about the reasons we need the EU and the benefits it brings. In the face of an unremittingly negative UKIP onslaught, making the positive case should be Clegg’s focus, and the focus of all the mainstream parties.

But there’s a catch. Being restrained about falling back on cold, hard facts only works if you can trust both sides of the conversation to be honest. And there is precious little evidence that UKIP will ever let the truth get in the way of the horribly negative picture they want to paint. After all, the reason British people mistrust the EU is not simply that they haven’t heard the positive case — it’s also that we’ve all been exposed, for decades, to the tendentious and outright deceitful anti-European rhetoric that’s served up day in, day out by our right-wing media and many members of the present government. And these editors and politicians know full well that, as an unfortunate fact of life, it’s easier to have an impact on your audience by concocting dramatic stories about regulating condoms or renaming Waterloo or making 70% of our laws, than it is by calmly pointing out the innumerable small ways in which the European Union improves all our lives.

So there’s an inherent risk if pro-Europeans fail to expose dramatic eurosceptic rubbish. If we let overblown myths pass unchallenged, they start to become accepted, and the next thing you know, they’re simply part of the background to the conversation — something almost unchallengeable, like the bendy bananas. This is the kind of thing that allowed Nigel Farage simply to scoff at Clegg’s point about the real proportion of laws made at European level — he could simply dodge the whole question by claiming that “everyone knows that’s not true”. And despite Sunder Katwala’s wise words, the only way to stop nonsense becoming accepted is to respond whenever it crops up with cold, hard truths — as undramatic and arhetorical as the truth may sometimes be.

So here’s my advice to Clegg for this evening’s debate. Yes, he must talk about principles and values. Yes, he must make the positive case, and not get drawn into more tit-for-tat rows with Farage over invented points of detail.

But when it comes to the big lies, pro-Europeans let them pass at their peril.

Post-debate reaction

My thoughts in brief: The tone of questions and apparent spread of audience views was much better than the LBC debate, and there were some excellent and intriguing questions, especially the first (I paraphrase from memory, “What principles underpin your positions on Europe?”) and the last (“What will the EU look like in ten years’ time?”). This was in stark contrast to last week, where nearly all the questions seemed to be based on eurosceptic premises, several of them distinctly dubious.

Nick Clegg opened well, taking on Nigel Farage on important big issues and making the pro-European case effectively. But, like last week, Clegg weakened as he went on. His habit of responding to unexpected questions with scripted set-pieces started to look more and more like question-dodging, which was unfortunate since often there were perfectly good responses to the questions buried in his rhetoric.

And, again, Clegg was somewhat hamstrung by having to toe the Tory line (e.g. on foreign policy, on immigration, on an EU referendum), rather than being free to articulate a better informed and more constructive position.

Farage delivered exactly what we knew to expect from him: a familiar mixture of feigned plausibility, beguiling anti-European propaganda, and disingenuous jibes about “toppling the political classes” in an attempt to paint himself as the single-handed saviour of the British Isles. His selective quoting from a House of Commons Library research publication (under the guise of correcting Clegg’s selective quoting, ironically!) was a low point.

But Farage had nothing to lose and much to gain from the publicity these debates have given him, so I have no doubt he will go home happy. The danger now is that Nick Clegg’s personal unpopularity translates into an undeserved credibility gain for UKIP.

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