OXFORD, United Kingdom – UKIP leader Nigel Farage and former Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg squared off last night at the Oxford Union, one of the world’s oldest and most august debating societies. Speaking against the motion “This House Believes Britain and the EU are Better Together”, Mr. Farage encouraged the audience of students to think about their future, while former Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg ironically warned about fighting the status quo.
Mr. Farage was joined by Tory eurosceptic Sir William Cash MP, while Mr. Clegg was backed by the former President of the European Commission Jose Manuel Barroso. But truly the stars of the show were the student debaters that opened for the two teams: Anne Williamson for the “In” camp, who even Mr. Farage paid compliment to in his opening remarks, and Jan Nedvidek for the Outers – a Czech Republic national who insisted that Britain out of the EU was not just good for Britain, but good for the Union too.
The queue for the event stretched in an L-shape around the block, with students having taken their positions early to catch a glimpse of the big showdown. Five hours some waited, with the majority clearly Liberal Democrat or Labour Party supporters.
Ms. Williamson, an Australian, while confident and assured, opened on the claim that the European Union was important for peace across Europe, not because France and Germany might go to war with one another again, but because before the EU, Germans would be beaten up on the streets of London. Cue a confused look in my direction by Mr. Farage.
And her student counterpart, though clearly a Cameron Tory, basically delivered Mr. Farage’s stump speech, asking, “Do you think the Germans will stop selling us their cars [if we left the EU]?”
But of course the main event was Messrs Clegg and Farage, whom the audience had to wait for as former European Commission President Barroso squared off against Tory MP Bill Cash.
He talked about the “global geopolitical order”, rubbishing the idea that Britain, with its population of 60 million, could compete at the same level as the United States, China, and India. Europe, he insisted, was critical for Britain’s status as a global player. Cue more confused looks from the opposition benches.
And Mr. Barroso played to the room, as he will have been used to doing in the European Parliament: “I want students across Europe to enjoy freedom of movement!” he declared, arousing a chorus of cheers and applause from the disproportionately foreign student crowd.
Those arguing in favour of the Union made the astute call of playing to the crowd’s fears of an isolated Britain, even claiming that Scotland would leave the United Kingdom if Britain voted no – while accusing the opposition of scaremongering. It was a tactic that Messrs Farage and Cash failed to shoot down, in my opinion the largest contributor to their four to one loss last night.
“If Britain would leave it would be seen as a defeat for the EU all around the world,” Barosso claimed, this time provoking glee from his opponents, before going on to invoke the memory of the former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher who famously campaign for an “in” vote during Britain’s European Common Market referendum in 1975.
All the other usual tropes were rolled out: climate change, Obama’s preference, and how much Eurosceptics would please Russian President Vladimir Putin if we left the EU. More of ‘Project Fear’, a tactic that has been urged in recent weeks by the pro-EU Independent newspaper.
Barosso went on to trash British patriotism, saying it was only relevant and important in a “European context” – and rebuffed a claim for the audience that Britain needs stronger border control. “We need stronger control of [Europe’s] external borders,” he replied.
And sadly for Mr. Farage and Mr. Nedvidek, their Tory stablemate Bill Cash was simply not up to the job.
Making the stuffy old Tory eurosceptic case was always going to be difficult in front of a crowd of students, but Sir William failed to land a single blow on his opponents. His dull and slow rhetoric was about as useful to the opposition side as a chocolate teapot; and nowhere near as novel.
And then came Mr. Clegg, who even Nigel Farage had to admit performed far better than in their two EU debates ahead of the European Elections in 2014.
Mr. Clegg’s performance was indeed a masterclass in rhetoric. He rose and fell with the emotions of the audience. He structured his speech like he had actually given it some thought and, importantly, he lied without flinching – the only way Europhiles can seem to win the debates.
“This debate is by far the most important debate that faces us,” he said, before stating how it was much more serious than a British General Election. Those concerned with sovereignty and democracy might have used that as a pin in Mr. Clegg’s argument. Unfortunately it seemed to get lost in the maelstrom.
He defended the contentious European Arrest Warrant by claiming it helped extradite a terrorist – Hussein Osman – just days after the failed 21/7 bombing in London in 2015. But at the same time he slammed the opposition for arguing that less border control would lead to more terrorists in Europe.
And then he took aim at another Union – the United Kingdom – claiming: “If we vote to leave the European Union we will likely lose the United Kingdom as well… the [Scottish National Party] have put us on alert”. He was of course talking about the fact that the SNP would use an EU-out vote to spark another referendum on their independence. Britons are likely, if it is indeed Scotland that keeps them IN the European Union, to insist on such a thing anyway.
And he argued that Britons shouldn’t chase perfection in the European Union. “It took the EU 15 years to decide the definition of chocolate,” he said, rubbishing claims that it was therefore able to launch a major, concerted assault on national parliaments, sovereignty and democracy. His emphatic finish drew a standing ovation from the crowd. Mr. Farage looked resigned to losing as he took the stage.
For all of Mr. Farage’s talents the one thing he doesn’t have enough of is time to prepare; and it showed. He employed elements of his usual, stump speech though threw in a funny, if not overstretched metaphor about Britain’s membership of the European Union being like the relationship between an old married couple, with the wife (Britain) being long-abused by the EU, and seeking a swift, but amicable divorce.
And his speech was constantly interrupted by the floor – a tactic no doubt employed to stall and wrong foot him as he made the arguments that if Iceland was big enough to make its own trade deal with China, so was the United Kingdom.
The results; some 280-odd to stay in the EU, versus 74 to leave, were perhaps not indicative of the wider sentiment across Britain, especially considering the latest polling.
But last night’s debate proved one thing: Eurosceptics must get their arguments in order not just for young professionals and older voters; but for young people and students too. This demographic may well be the tipping point, and we know from students’ affinities to ‘safe spaces’ that they are far more likely to choose the ‘safe’ status quo, than taking a leap into the Brexit darkness. That is the real challenge for the anti-EU campaigns. And one I fear they might not rise to.