Nick Clegg arrives for his second debate with Nigel Farage. Source: Getty
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Anti-Establishment venom proves lethal to pro-European arguments

Nick Clegg stress-tested the case for Britain's EU membership in his debates with Nigel Farage and it failed.

This time Farage won it easily. The rapid reaction opinion poll shows the Ukip leader enjoyed an even wider margin of victory over the deputy Prime Minister than he did in last week’s TV debate. Comfortably more than two thirds of the surveyed audience sided against the EU, or rather, with the man who is against the EU.

There are many possible reasons for this. As last week, there is surely a predisposition in audiences to be suspicious of a pro-European argument and, in many quarters, an inclination to be suspicious of Nick Clegg. But the Lib Dem leader also seemed less stable in his rhetoric than last week, while Farage kept his cantankerous side in check. (Although he did display a sour, mirthless laugh that surely cannot have been endearing even to his most dedicated followers.)

Clegg seems to have decided that his performance last week lacked passion – perhaps because many of the reviews, including mine, said as much. Unfortunately, he responded with a  kind of urgent outrage that seemed directed as much at people who agree with Farage as at Farage himself. In other words, his attacks on the “dangerous fantasy” of wanting to “turn the clock back” must have come across as patronising and dismissive to people who are alarmed at and alienated by features of modern Britain – and there are probably more of them than there are die-hard Ukip voters.

The deputy Prime Minister put up a lively and robust defence of a diverse, open, tolerant society but he didn’t demonstrate that those things are contingent on continued membership of the EU. He denigrated the Ukip world view, which wasn’t the subject of the debate. Farage was more ruthlessly focused on the wickedness of Brussels. His hatred of the European project is not in doubt, as evidenced by his conviction that the EU has undeclared military imperial ambitions. Clegg is right when he says that line reeks of conspiracy theory and yet, I suspect, his efforts at ridicule – comparing Europhobia to doubts about the moon landing – missed their target. Farage neither looked nor sounded enough like a crank to make that attack work.

Clegg failed to rebut the view that Britain is controlled by a cabal of foreign bureaucrats – the most insidious and potent Eurosceptic theme. And yet again he found it hard to wriggle away from the argument that pro-Europeans don’t want to call a referendum because they are afraid the nation will deliver the “wrong” answer.

Farage’s foreign policy pronouncements – a kind of amoral isolationism that offers Vladimir Putin as an impressive practitioner of Great Game nationalism –  were as devoid of moral sense as they were last week. Except this time he had more space to expound on the theme and managed to turn it into a semi-coherent rejection of reckless interventions, deploying language often heard on the anti-war left.

Clegg’s final declaration of love for liberal, modern Britain will have earned cheers among his party faithful and that is half of his mission accomplished. But to win outright Clegg needed to show that Farage’s entire project runs on pessimism and fear. He needed to expose Ukip’s lack of any positive prescription and to remind people that Farage – public school educated, a former City trader, bankrolled by a handful of millionaires, free-riding on an MEP’s salary and allowances – has no credible claim to be the voice of the dispossessed. But Farage accused Clegg of being part of an “elite club of career politicians" in hock to "big business”. He offered his audience an invitation to  “join the people’s army and topple the Establishment.” And he got away with it. Clegg let him off the hook. This should cause alarm among those who believe in pragmatic engagement in Europe and those who take a liberal, open-minded, cosmopolitan view of the kind of place Britain should aspire to be. Perhaps Clegg was the wrong messenger. Perhaps under the circumstances he did well to get that case across at all. But it is hard to avoid the feeling that important arguments about Britain's cultural and economic future were stress-tested tonight and yielded too easily.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser