Oh no we’re not – the clapometer says Brexit in the Guardian’s live debate
You wouldn’t necessarily expect involving to make for raucous entertainment.
So perhaps it was the atmosphere of a big West End venue more used to live music and theatre. Or perhaps Britain hasn’t yet got the hang of the new politics, where everyone listens to the full spectrum of arguments before calmly making up their mind.
Then again, is it ever going to be possible for Britain’s debate, informed by at least 30 years of sustained distortion about the supposed evils of “Brussels”, to be anything but partisan and emotional?
In any event, the 2,000 people who packed out the London Palladium for the Guardian’s first were hungry for both more talk about Europe and, possibly, more pantomime. They booed, whistled, roared, shouted and wanted villains to heckle or applaud. And from the stalls only a few things seemed certain.
1. People hate it when politicians don’t give direct answers. (“Answer the question!” was a favourite heckle).
2. Those who show up for debates have probably already decided in which of the two opposing camps – or Bremain – they belong.
3. Public engagement on the Europe issue is in fine fettle.
So which side will prevail in June? Will Britain’s fate be decided by trade, the economy, immigration? What about the third of the electorate who are still dithering? And what about the third within each camp who could start dithering again in the next 100 days?
If the Palladium’s clapometer is any guide, the Leave side still has more of the energy and momentum. A louder, more vigorous cheer certainly went up for Brexit than for Bremain when warm-up comedian Andy Zaltzman asked us to declare our hands. Although he got an even bigger cheer when he asked how many would vote for Britain to leave Planet Earth altogether.
A pugnacious Nick Clegg really got the Remain side going when he accused outers of behaving as if Britain was just “a piddling little island”, always being bullied by Brussels. Clearly energised by being back in the political ring, the former Lib Dem leader brought the house down several times: calling out the “deeply dishonest” scaremongering of the outers about the refugees and drawing on his own forensic knowledge of how the EU works to make mincemeat of the argument that British business would flourish if only it could be liberated from the stifling red tape. If you’re a manufacturer of plastic ducks in Britain, you’ll still, after all, have to comply with the single market’s plastic duck manufacturing rules, he pointed out, so why on earth would you give up your place at the table to influence the plastic duck issue? And in any case, Clegg assured everyone, claims that the back in 2011 were “A-grade, 24-carat bilge”.
But Ukip leader Nigel Farage also delivered thumping soundbites about how lovely life would be to be “as rich, happy and successful” as the Nordic paradise Norway. And he won applause when he said had been one of the biggest policy errors of recent history.
The Ukip leader provoked near uproar, however, on claiming that staying in the EU would drag Britain into a “political union with Turkey”, bring in “77 million even poorer people” and that Brussels was plotting a European army to rival Nato.
Andrea Leadsom, energy minister and a Conservative out campaigner also got short shrift when she offered “We speak English” as one of the reasons why Britain would prosper as a go-it-alone nation. Howls of “Rubbish!” met her claim that a Polish constituent thought the EU was a “totalitarian” organisation.
, got his loudest cheer when he derided Nigel Farage’s attack on Europe’s free movement rules. Ukip didn’t want us to come out of Europe just so they could let in more people from Pakistan, Johnson mocked to great effect.
Leaving the theatre Mike, 57, confirmed how difficult it is to illuminate the debate on Europe in a neutral way, because so many of the supposedly objective facts can be justifiably used by either side to support their case. Mike was one of the few who put up his hand as “undecided” in the audience. And by the end he was no surer – “My friends are all inners” – but Farage and Leadsom had made valid points, he thought.
Linda, in her 70s, was disappointed that Farage hadn’t been even more confrontational in the clash. “I could tell he wasn’t happy. He was like a racehorse being held back.” Kasim, 18, a law student, was looking forward to his first ever vote to make sure Britain gets out of the EU because there was “too much political overspill”. Cameron’s renegotiation was “worth nothing”.
Sarah and Loretta, two young women from Kent, were unimpressed that it had all been “a bit of a cat fight” with a lot of on-stage “banter”. Sarah said she wasn’t sure what anyone meant when they talked about sovereignty. If Britain could make its own laws then what kind of laws would the outers bring in? “Would they want the death penalty?” she wondered.
Jacob, 19, accompanied by his mother, said he had been roused out of his apathy by the event. “Nick Clegg convinced me to vote Remain,” he said. “And remember, you didn’t even want to come tonight,” his mother reminded him.
But who knows where Jacob, or Sarah or Mike, or even Kasim, will be by June? As with all good theatre, it’s not over till the fat lady sings.