A date has now been set for Nick Clegg’s debate with Nigel Farage on the merits of Britain’s membership of the European Union. And it’s good news for our democracy.
People who are disengaged from party politics often claim it’s because politicians are “all the same” and don’t have any substantive argument with each other; that essentially a consensus has been reached amongst the political elites and that all that is left to fight over is the tiny, technocratic details.
One of the instantly attractive aspects of the upcoming debate is the fact that it will be a binary one: Clegg wants the UK to remain in the EU, Farage wants us out, full stop. This will make a refreshing change from the nuances of a system which – thanks to the vagaries of First Past the Post – encourages parties to seek, relentlessly, the centre ground in an effort to attract floating voters in marginal seats. A clear debate between two parties with sharply different opinions on an issue can only be good for the vitality of our democracy.
Another promising aspect of the impending showdown between the leader of UKIP and the Deputy Prime Minister is that – immediately ahead of the 22 May election which will decide who will represent Britain in the European Parliament – there will be a debate about Europe itself. This is very welcome. It is a commonplace of the academic literature that voters tend to make their decision in European elections based on national rather than European issues. Clegg v Farage will hopefully make it harder for people to see this year’s European election as simply a proxy for national politics.
Of course, European elections are about a great deal more than just whether or not the UK should be bothering to take part in the whole thing at all. But from the point of view of democratic choice and debate, the more Europe is discussed ahead of the election, the better.