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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.

Nick Clegg arrives for his second debate with Nigel Farage. Source: Getty

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.