Revealing all—or nothing

March 26, 2014
Placeholder image!

The funny thing about Nigel Farage and Nick Clegg is really how very similar they are. Both are public school educated, both are of similar age, both are leaders of political parties polling at around the 10 per cent mark, both are married to women from continental Europe and both, in their own ways, have made their names in European politics: Clegg by working in the Brussels apparatus, Farage by trying to dismantle it.

So in the first debate that took place between the two men tonight, there was a certain dissonance involved in remembering these similarities while listening to the two of them slug it out. Because despite being so similar in so many ways, in political outlook they are as men from different universes. In no way do their respective visions of Britain intersect. In the Venn diagram of "What Nick Clegg and Nigel Farage believe," the two circles do not touch.

Because of this, tonight's debate had about it an air of near absurdity. Clegg said that if Britain left the EU, Nissan and other car manufacturers would move their operations. No they would not, said Farage. Farage said that 75 per cent of all UK laws originate in Brussels. Clegg said that the true number was 7 per cent. Clegg said Britain's EU membership was a net benefit to Britain. Farage said that it cost the country at least £55m per day. Farage said that most jobs go to immigrants. Clegg said 90 per cent of new jobs now go to Brits. Clegg said immigrants contribute £22bn to the economy. Farage said that between 1995 and 2011, immigration cost Britain £144bn.

The differences extended outwards from this detail and into each man's vision of the country, with Clegg extolling the virtues of an open nation, of a "Great Britain, not a little England." Farage countered saying that the problem with "people like Nick," is that they just don't think Britain's good enough to run its own affairs. They want to hand it all over to Europe.

Even the demeanour of each man was sharply different. Clegg—serious, stentorian, immersed in the detail. Farage—brash, jovial, conversant with the detail but essentially reliant on rhetoric.

Their descriptions of Britain were as opposite to one another as anode and cathode. But which of them won, asked the twittersphere? Did Nigel overstep the mark when he blamed EU meddling for the Ukraine crisis? Did Nick come off as a little haughty and unappealing? To choose a winner, there needs to have been a contest. And tonight, nothing was really contested. Can there be a winner when the gap between the two is so colossal? In terms of the interplay of ideas, there was no winner.

But on rhetoric, on presence, on ability to work a room, to charm, cajole, crack wise and command the attention, Nigel Farage won this debate. Just. Clegg's performance was not bad as such. It's just that he was outperformed, and performance in such situation counts a great deal. The question now is whether it will make any difference to the polls. Tomorrow's numbers will reveal all—or nothing, of course.