Two of the writers I most admire have fallen out over the Clegg vs Farage debate. James Kirkup calls it for the Lib Dem leader (his reasons here) and Peter Oborne for Farage – but I’m in the happy position of being able to disagree with both of them. I think they both lost, and I explain why in my Daily Telegraph column today.
Clegg has decided to ride the Ukip wave, positioning himself as the patron saint of Europhiles who loathe the sight of Nigel Farage. He will be calculating that there are more of them than LibDem supporters. But I regarded their debate on Wednesday as rather sterile, laden with clichés and extremist positions. I don’t think that the EU is an evil empire with 'blood on its hands' as Farage bizarrely claimed. Nor do I think that EU membership is the only thing standing between Britain and impoverished isolation, as Clegg makes out. But the more these two egg each other on, pushing each other into extreme positions, the more they undermine their own credibility.
The truth, I’d suggest, lies somewhere in between. That the merits of EU membership – a free trade zone, free movement of people, the ability of British companies to sell their wares without extra tariff anywhere in the 28-member bloc – is worth something.
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Where I part company with some Coffee Housers is on the question of identity. I’d describe myself as a Highlander, Scottish, British and European – and proud to be all four. And for me, it has a practical element. Like Nick Clegg, I married an immigrant and try to raise kids speaking two languages at home. My wife is also the daughter of Czech asylum seekers who fled to Sweden after dodging too many Soviet bullets in Prague. So I can understand why Clegg feels emotionally attached to the EU project. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t share this myself. The idea of the Czech Republic being part of the family of free nations, after being in Moscow’s control not so long ago, is a a prize worth cherishing for more than economic reasons.
I'm perhaps too old to see the days of European conflict as ancient history, and events in Crimea have reminded us about how things can change. Also, I'm not a great believer in the linearity of history - as events 100 years ago taught us, very intricate globalised political systems can suddenly and unpredictably collapse. I have some sympathy with this following line from John Buchan's Power-House (written in 1913):-
"You think that a wall as solid as the earth separates civilisation from barbarism. I tell you the division is a thread, a sheet of glass. A touch here, a push there, and you bring back the reign of Saturn."
I mention all this because, for me, the case for EU membership has always been far greater than an economic equation. It's worth doing because of what went before, and as an insurance against what might come. So I plead guilty to seeing an emotional appeal in the EU project. Both my heart and my head says there’s something worth fighting for.
But nor is the current situation defensible: the EU has given itself so many powers that we’ve ended up in a political union that no one in Britain wanted. This offends the basic concept of democracy, which is why we need a renegotiation and a referendum.
I’ve never understood why my fellow Europhiles have sought to deny that there is even a small problem with the way the EU has evolved. The Europhile movement seems to rely less on rational arguments and more on name-calling - basically, saying that their opponents are small-minded xenophobes. I'm afraid Clegg can come across that way, quoting ridiculous figures that ought to have no place in any rational debate.
Nor can I begin to understand Clegg's claim that Britain, the greatest nation on earth with the advantage of the Commonwealth as a global network, could not be just as great outside the EU. Sure, I'd prefer to stay within the EU family - and not have to apply for new passports for my own family. But if the EU won't reform, and Britain votes to come out, I'm not in the least persuaded by any of these arguments about isolation or irrelevance.
To me, the mission is clear: reform our EU membership then hold a referendum. David Cameron’s proposal makes much sense. And he stands to achieve it through his Northern Alliance that I wrote about in The Spectator recently.
Watching the Clegg vs Farage debate summed up everything I dislike about the European argument, as conducted in Britain – the swapping of bogus statistics, the way everything is taken to extremes and the way the intelligence of the voter insulted. Three million British jobs are ‘linked to’ our EU membership, Mr Clegg? And you really suggest two million of them would go? And did the Ukrainians really chase out a corrupt government because the EU wrongly egged them on, Mr Farage? Does the fact that we choose to pooled sovereignty in certain areas really mean Britain is not self-governing?
I think there’s a lot of interest in the EU debate. A lot of very serious questions can be raised, But those watching next week’s Clegg vs Farage contest will, I suspect, come away realizing that neither Ukip nor the LibDems have the answer.