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When democracy is a game show

LAST week, Nick Clegg scored 31% and 27% in a couple of opinion polls.

In any other context, this would have been impressive. The Liberal Democrat leader has not enjoyed so much approval since the TV debates in 2010, when opponents fell over themselves to agree with Nick.

Last week's numbers contained several problems, however, for Clegg and for the politics of the United Kingdom. One was in the figures you get when you subtract 31 and 27 from 100. In the two polls, setting aside indecision, 69% and 68% respectively of those asked certainly didn't agree with Nick. He was trounced, routed, given a hiding.

That fact leads you to the ­personage who managed to impress those big majorities among a representative sample of the great British public. Then comes the question of what the ­individual said to inspire such approval. So you settle on Ukip's Nigel Farage and his programme, a programme with which Clegg could not begin to compete.

Better than two-thirds of those who watched an hour-long televised debate concluded that Farage was talking sense. That's a fact worth contemplating. Secondly, those people agreed with his depiction of the UK and the world in which the UK finds itself.

Thirdly, they agreed, so you must presume, with his descriptions of the serried enemies of social harmony, prosperity and the common good. Finally, they agreed with the man from Ukip over what must be done.

In parts of the UK, voters could gaze upon all of this with a mixture of incredulity and anger. Who is Farage and why was he granted two hours of TV time over consecutive weeks on the eve of European elections? His party has a clutch of MEPs? Other parties could say the same.

So Ukip is doing well in opinion polls and this is good enough for Ofcom? If the idea of the UK still means anything, you can conclude that the regulator is happy to ignore voters in Scotland, where Ukip attracts derision rather than support, and in Northern Ireland. European elections do not cause governments to be created. We each have a stake.

But what democratic stake does anyone have in TV's idea of a contest? Aside from granting Farage and Clegg air-time denied to others, the debates were an open invitation to the Ukip man to reduce every argument to a noisy slogan. What we got, with the help of the LibDem leader, was a shouting contest, a populist pitch to voters who are these days well-tutored in TV's taste for politics as a game show.

Did the outcome matter? In one sense, the formal sense, it didn't matter in the slightest. If Ukip comes top in the Euro-election share of the vote it will not make the slightest difference within the European Parliament. Yet the BBC and others once again led nightly bulletins with news of an argument between the leaders of a pair of minor parties. Scots could look on again - from afar, in every sense - and hear who had "won".

You could justify the exercise, just about, by speculating on the effect of Ukip's sloganising on Tory voters and a promised "in-out" European referendum. Since the BBC appears obsessed with the topics, you could wonder about the Ukip phenomenon, where it exists, and immigration. You would still have to set aside swathes of the UK. For Scotland, other questions entirely could apply after September 18.

Still, Farage won this gladiators-in-suits bout by better than handy margins. The polls taken after the debate were meanwhile run by reputable companies. Aside from the fact that you had to tune in to possess an opinion, the surveys were not skewed. Here, then, was the popular view, expressed thanks to TV's notion of popular democracy, among people liable to avail themselves of the Ukip option at the polling station.

We should be specific. If Ofcom's yardstick applies and MEPs elected reflect a party's standing, Farage was endorsed by the people of southern England. Others were no doubt surveyed by the polling company, but the bulk of the UK's population and all of Ukip's parliamentary representation exist in one part of these islands. Those returns of 69% and 68% did not reflect "what Britain thinks". This was the English south speaking.

Among other things, Farage said this: "Let's take back control of our country. Let's control our borders and have a proper immigration policy. Let's stop giving away £55 million a day as a membership fee to a club that we don't need to be a part of. I would urge people: come and join the people's army. Let's topple the establishment who have led us to this mess."

The point of that insurgency, it seems, is to defend what Farage terms the "white working class". It is meant to oppose big business - a blow to Ukip fundraisers, but never mind - and wealthy landowners. It is supposed to dismantle the European Union, of course, by democratic means, even if Farage left room for other possibilities, adding: "If it doesn't end democratically I'm afraid it will end very unpleasantly."

As the Ukip leader would have it, he's for the people and against "the establishment". The people who matter are white, it turns out, but he presents this overwhelming majority as some sort of embattled minority. The great and the good are meanwhile anyone who happens to oppose the former City trader. His nostalgia extends even to demagoguery: this is tried and tested stuff.

There is a whiff, indeed, of ­America's Tea Party in the idea that "we" have to reclaim Britain from "them". There is a far older strand of populism to the claim that "the nation" - Ukip has a hazy idea of how the UK was constructed - is beset on all sides. At bottom, no foreigner is trustworthy, whether immigrant or EU bureaucrat. As a confection, this is as stupid as it is obnoxious.

Clegg had no luck against the onslaught, however. This might have been because the LibDem leader is neither trusted nor trustworthy. It might have been because the sort of floor show broadcast last Wednesday is tailor-made for the bilious rhetoric that is Farage's stock in trade. The fact remains: naked prejudice went down well with a huge part of the target audience. In southern England, on this evidence, tolerance is not in vogue.

If and when Scots vote for Farage's claptrap, conclusions can be drawn. Thus far we have declined the Ukip offer decisively. Yet we share an island with large numbers of folk who think Clegg's conqueror is a marvel, not a jumped-up opportunist surrounded by bigots you would cross the road to avoid. That fact is already having its effect on Westminster politics. Once again, the parties who want to win in southern England are careering rightwards.

It's a truth worth ­considering between now and September. Just as important, though, is the fact that Farage is of a type that has begun to re-emerge all across Europe. In country after country, the pocket demagogues read from the same xenophobic script. As it turns out, Ukip types are no different from all those foreigners.

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