This is an open letter to Nick Clegg, following his debate with Nigel Farage on Wednesday, 26 March 2014. Clegg, on behalf of the Liberal Democrats, was arguing in favour of Britain’s membership of the EU; Farage, on behalf of UKIP, was arguing that Britain should withdraw. Media comment following the debate suggested that neither man emerged as the decisive winner.
Nick, I feel that you did not make your case as powerfully as you might have done, for the following six reasons:
1. You argued that “3 million jobs are linked to Britain’s membership of the EU”. This is a weak argument, because it does not decisively imply that these jobs would be lost if Britain left the EU – and Farage pounced on that weakness. A much stronger argument can be made by inverting the proposition: could anyone seriously suggest that companies would move to Britain specifically because it was not in the EU? Britain’s membership of the EU undobtedly makes it an attractive place for foreign companies to set up business.
2. Farage made the point that EU employment regulations, at 350 pages, were overcomplicated. What you could have said, with certainty, is that 26 separate sets of regulations would have amounted to a great deal more bureaucracy. At least Britain can trade with the whole of Europe on the basis of a single set of rules.
3. You did not decisively win the argument on European Human Rights. The audience should be asked a rhetorical question: why would British citizens deserve less protection than other Europeans from government oppression? You could have pointed out that Human Rights legislation protected our ancient right of habeas corpus in December 2004, when the Labour government tried to introduce arrest without trial in the name of protecting us from terrorism.
4. You could have pointed out that Farage’s desire to have ‘Britain run its own affairs’ was just a coded suggestion that we could trust him as an individual with much more power than a British Prime Minister currently has. Members of the EU have pooled their sovereignty on matters which either require cooperation between countries or, like human rights, should be universally applied whatever national government is in power. National politicians should only decide matters upon which countries need autonomy (and local politicians should probably be given more power than they have now). Political power should be dispersed appropriately across the different levels of subsidiarity.
5. You did not clarify your reasons for opposing an immediate referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU. You were right to point out that the Lisbon Treaty would have been an appropriate moment for a referendum, and that any big future future ceding of power to Europe should also require one. What you did not make clear is that any referendum creates an uncertain climate for investment and so will threaten jobs. There should be a clear case for having one, not just a wish to put UKIP’s defining policy at the centre of British politics.
6. Finally, I feel that you let yourself down on the question of your personal trustworthiness. You were challenged about your broken election pledge that you would not increase tuition fees – you did not keep that promise when you came to power as part of the coalition. This question will not go away. Instead of trying to avoid it, you would have done better to explain clearly why you changed your position; it is inevitable that politicians should sometimes change their positions when presented with more information or when they are negotiating with another party in a coalition.
I hope that these suggestions will help you to make a stronger case in next Wednesday’s debate.