straw man argument

Those Clegg-Farage debates…

It’s a depressingly frequent feature of modern debate that one or both sides deliberately, usually through self-deception, misunderstands and misrepresents the arguments and opinions of his opponent. Instead of engaging with and responding to what the other person actually said, he invents an imaginary opinion for his opponent, and attacks it.

It’s a common mistake. My history teacher has wryly observed that when an exam candidate gets a really difficult essay question, he will often subconsciously change the essay question to make it easier to answer. He will then write a long, detailed essay and walk out of the exam room beaming at how well he’s done, before being disappointed on results day, because…he didn’t actually answer the question. Similarly, in debates, if you can’t counter your opponent’s argument, you’ll pretend that he gave an argument that’s easier to counter, rather than having to argue against what he actually said.

In the recent debates between Nick Clegg and Nigel Farage on the EU, Clegg’s contributions were full of such straw-man arguments, and full of clichés. I admit I had actually quite liked his phrase “alarm clock Britain”, which he used at the 2011 Lib Dem conference to describe the ordinary working British public. It was unintentionally amusing but genuinely quite clever. This time, his turns of phrase were only wearisome.

In the first debate, hosted by LBC, he repeatedly used the phrase “pulling up the drawbridge” to describe UKIP’s policy, as if they advocated completely cutting ourselves off from European immigration (or reducing it to “negligible proportions”, as per Enoch Powell). They don’t.

In the second debate, hosted by David Dimbleby for the BBC, Clegg argued against the idea that leaving the EU will solve all our problems with immigration. Farage didn’t say that leaving the EU would solve all our problems. I share Clegg’s distaste for Farage’s choice of words in his praise for President Putin (“how he played the whole Syria thing. Brilliant”). Still, over Ukraine, it’s really not too difficult to distinguish between criticism of the EU and British governments’ provocation and handling of the crisis, and “siding with Vladimir Putin” or being “the leader of party Putin” (as opposed to Clegg’s party In). He doesn’t. He isn’t.

Clegg continually gave the tired liberal line that his opponent wanted to “turn the clock back”; in his closing statement he idiotically accused Farage of “shun[ning] the modern world, want[ing] to turn the clock back to a world where it was all so much more simple I don’t know, Britain still had the empire, women knew their place and stayed at home, people who were gay weren’t allowed to get married.” What evidence did he have that Farage believed a woman’s place was in the home? None, is the obvious answer. (In fact, Mr. Farage really isn’t a social conservative he supports the legalisation of drugs and prostitution, and isn’t ashamed to have visited lap dancing clubs. Mr. Clegg should do his homework.)

He dismissed Farage’s claim that the EU wanted its own army, navy and air force (sorry, Cleggers, but it’s true), smearing him by association with conspiracy theories: “I wouldn’t be surprised if Nigel Farage soon tells us that the moon landing was a fake, that Barack Obama isn’t American, and that Elvis isn’t dead.” The most unbelievable misrepresentation of Farage’s views was when he said this:

He [Farage] claimed last week that 485 million people were going to vacate the whole of the rest of the European continent and turn up in Britain, leaving no human habitation left in the rest of Europe.

What Mr. Farage had said was the following: “485 million people have the unconditional right to come to Britain if they want to.” No intelligent person could have honestly interpreted that in the way that Clegg did, or insulted the viewing public’s intelligence by honestly thinking they would share his interpretation.

Farage performed notably better in the second debate than in the first, though I didn’t agree with all of his arguments in either. I think forgoing the pre-debate pint (unlike the first time) probably paid off. Putting Clegg’s caricatures, smears and complacency to shame, he showed himself, far from being an isolationist backwoodsman mourning a bygone age, to have an inspired, optimistic view of Britain’s place in the world. But what was really interesting was how he repeatedly tailored his words towards the ordinary, little guy against big business – the EU and mass immigration are good for big business, but bad for you and me.

A month ago, there was a poll which asked supporters of the four major political parties the following question: If returning to the top 50p rate of tax would not bring in any extra revenue, would they still support it on “moral grounds”? The interesting thing was that as much as 35 per cent of UKIP voters said yes, compared to 54 per cent no. It seems that UKIP’s increasingly economically left-wing, working class base – most of whom would never dream of voting Tory – would not be best pleased to discover UKIP’s policy of a 31% flat tax. Looking at their economic policies, it’s easy to see why they focus on the areas where they do agree with their potential supporters – immigration and the EU – while keeping quiet about their economic policies. The only problem is that most people rank the economy pretty highly in their list of concerns, and even for UKIP voters it ranks higher than the EU.

Though I certainly don’t see eye to eye with him on everything, Nigel Farage is that rare thing – a sincere, patriotic and admirable politician – and he easily beat Clegg in last week’s debate. But as a libertarian in a not instinctively libertarian country, and without a substantially libertarian voting base, the idea that he is in tune with the people in a way the established parties are not is not entirely the case.

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