In April 2016 the Spectator hosted a debate at the London Palladium on the question of whether the British people should or should not vote in a referendum on 23 June to leave the European Union.
What a relief! Two years ago I said on this blog that I looked forward to a referendum, not least because of the campaign. I wanted to hear proper arguments. This looked like perhaps the best chance we’d have of that: a structured series of addresses from a balanced selection of speakers, followed by a well-chaired exchange of challenges, and lastly questions from an informed audience. Knowing that you will be held ruthlessly to account for any idle nonsense that you might peddle concentrates a speaker’s mind wonderfully; so I looked forward to watching this and, perhaps having my eurosceptic instincts challenged.
The debate was chaired by Andrew Neill, with the Remain team consisting of two Labour Members of Parliament and one from the Liberal Democrats: Chuka Umunna, Nick Clegg and Liz Kendall while the Brexit team were two Members of the European Parliament, one Conservative and one UKIP, and one Labour MP: Daniel Hannan, Kate Hoey and Nigel Farage. All hundred minutes are worth watching but I shall comment only on the opening addresses, which is to say the first thirty seven and a half minutes of the following video.
I’ll cover the speakers in the order that they speak. First let me say that Andrew Neill’s introduction is competent, though it does highlight the truth of what I tell my trainees concerning humour. Stand-up comedy is immeasurably more difficult than it looks, so you try it at your peril.
4:06 – Liz Kendall starts by reading a legend to be found on a Labour Party membership card. Fair start, but she continues to read her whole speech. Her theme centres on the importance of international cooperation. No doubt one of her opponents will gently point out that no one in this argument disapproves of international cooperation. Otherwise, apart from the usual argumentum ad verecundiam where she quotes all the international bigwigs that say they want us to stay, she is banging the influence drum and, because she is reading her speech, whatever she says is diminished. Some will never learn.
9:24 – Nigel Farage elects not to remain behind his lectern, but to claim downstage centre. Why not? – while he is speaking, it’s his show. The trouble is that downstage centre is not lit so till the lighting catches up we see him only in silhouette. If he is aware of that it doesn’t seem to bother him, and he has obviously worked out (or contrived) that the sound system is man enough to cope with him away from his lectern microphone. He shoots his five minutes from the hip, which makes what he says immediately more compelling, and closes with a long and stirring anaphora.
15:20 – Nick Clegg speaks well. He makes his case very eloquently and without hampering himself with paper. I see little point in my contesting anything he says, because his opponents on stage are there for that.
20:10 – Kate Hoey is reading her speech, which takes the edge off her message. As a Labour Member of Parliament, she puts a different slant on the argument from that of her colleagues: she is unashamedly for the people. She is the first in this debate to bring up the matter of TTIP, the alleged ‘Free Trade Agreement’ negotiated in secret between the administrations of USA and EU. As an MP no doubt she knows more about its plans than most of us, but some of the leaks seeping out on the subject are alarming. I wonder whether it will feature more strongly later in this referendum campaign.
26:40 – Chuka Umunna says, “Now look!” It’s almost a catch phrase. Miserably I hear my last chance for a new and exciting argument in favour of remaining in the EU gurgling down the plughole. A column of straw men arguments marches across the stage: a child of twelve could mow them down. This is really pathetic! There is just one speaker left: I have heard innumerable speeches from him on the subject, so I think I have a good idea what is in store. I honestly wish he could have been offered a stronger target to attack.
31:20 – Daniel Hannan proves me wrong. I did not know what was in store. Yes I have heard him offer all these arguments and have read them also in his book, Why Vote Leave, but he is speaking with greater panache and freedom than I have seen before. It suits him. He still punctuates his speaking by calling his audience “my friends” which jars a little, but he is in outstanding form here. No, he is better than that: he is downright awesome. It is not just my view: listen to the reception that greets his peroration. Other speakers finished to applause: he finished to deafening cheers.
I have made no secret that I fully intend to vote for us to leave, but I really did hope that we would get better arguments from the Remain side. While they trot out their preposterous lines about…
- Little Englanders, drawbridges and so on, when we want to rejoin the rest of the world
- cutting ourselves off, ditto
- not cooperating with the rest of the world, ditto in Spades
- not being able to trade, when as already the EU’s biggest customer we are ideally placed to cherry pick our trading status with the EU let alone the rest of the world,
…they’ll earn nothing but scorn. And when they claim to cite other countries that think we should stay they are confusing pronouncements from politicians with views of the people: several polls show a very different story. Already the people of several EU countries are lining up to press for their own referendum, because they sense that the EU’s days are numbered. I rather feel that this referendum is partly about whether we go down with it or whether we get out now, the better to help the poor victims that do go down with it.
In a vote at the end of this debate the Leave side won.