The UK election debate last night focused on domestic policy, so sadly I didn’t get my EU fix from them. Still, it was very interesting to watch the first-ever televised political debate in British history after having watched so many in America.
There was a lot of skepticism in the UK over whether this was really a useful exercise. After all, the party leaders already have a televised debate every week with prime ministers questions, when the full parliament sits and the leaders ask each other questions for 30 minutes. PMQs get very raucous, with hooting and hollering, accusations, jeers, laughter, you name it. Over the years they’ve gotten increasingly theatrical and bombastic, to the point where these days it seems a lot more like political theatre than legitimate debate.
There have been calls for the UK to start doing American-style televised debates during their general elections for decades, but every prime minister from Thatcher to Blair has always refused. It was, according to conventional wisdom, the sitting prime minister who had the most to lose by participating in a debate that would put them on an equal playing field with the opposition. But this year Gordon Brown relented, and of course, there’s no putting the lid back on that jar. Last night was the dawn of a new era in British politics. Never again will a sitting prime minister be able to avoid a televised debate.
On the whole I would say this debate had much more substance that American presidential debates. The candidates discussed real policy and any attempts to stretch the truth were minimal (at least compared to American debates, which often seem to take place in a fact-free alternative universe). But many British people I spoke with found the format strangely cold and formal. They followed all the same formatting of an American debate – the candidates stood at podiums, taking questions from a moderator who was not able to ask follow-up questions. The audience was not allowed to applaud or make any noise whatsoever. I was amused to see that the Brits had even created their own little “spin alley” after the debate, where the spinners from the three parties ran in to explain to the journalists why their particular candidate had won the debate. The BBC even did that insta-polling where they had a focus group indicate their immediate reactions to the candidates in real time. Clearly the British media has been waiting for some time to break out all the fun debate tools their counterparts across the pond have been developing for years.
But throughout the whole thing I did have a feeling that this particular format just wasn’t fitting with the British political system. As the three “candidates” spoke, I noticed that their vocal inflections were rising as they finished their points, as if they were expecting a chorus of their backbenches to chime in with their cheers or jeers as in prime ministers questions. When the yelling didn’t start, they almost seemed a little confused. It really did reinforce the point that this format is meant to look at three individuals now rather than at three parties. Personality politics is the name of the game these days, and perhaps this format makes the process more engaging for voters. But does it really fit with a parliamentary system? It seems rather inappropriate. After all, they’re not electing a president, they’re voting for their specific local MP, who will then cast a vote for the leader of the parliament.
It also irritated me a bit that the presenters kept saying that the "only comparative example" they had to go on was US debates. That's a patently absurd statement when many countries in continental Europe have been doing TV debates for years. France, for instance, doesn't do any of this silly worm or focus group stuff in its debates. Why didn't the UK look to them, or Denmark, or any other countries for ideas on how to cover this? Why indeed. Note to the British: you're not American, get over it.
As I predicted yesterday, Liberal Democreat leader Nick Clegg was the clear winner of last night’s debate. All the polls last night and today showed that at least half of people watching considered him the clear winner (a result backed up by www.slapometer.com) . He was able to introduce himself to the British public and put himself on an equal footing with the other two. He also seemed to be the most relaxed and comfortable of the three, and he was the only one who spoke to the TV cameras instead of the audience in the studio. Barring an unfortunate use of the word "squillions" at one point, it was a pretty flawless performance.
The only US presidential debates that have had three participants in recent memory was the 1992 election between George Bush I, Bill Clinton and Ross Perot. Admitedly I was 12 at the time so my memory of that debate isn’t the best, but I don’t remember Perot getting much face time. He was kind of treated as this amusing sideshow and did not seem like an equal to the other two. This contrasted starkly to what I saw last night. Clegg got plenty of face time, and not just because the moderator was giving him equal time. Both Cameron and Brown kept bringing him into the discussion, challenging him as if he were an equal opponent.
The other running joke on Twitter was the gratuitous use of anecdotes, especially by Cameron. Clearly all three had gotten debate training based on what works in America. But though the kind of “I was talking to a one-armed black man on welfare the other day” stories repeated over and over stories might work in the US, it just doesn’t fly with a British audience. Even the TV commentators after the debate agreed that the overuse of anecdotes just doesn’t work for a British audience.
It will be interesting to see how the two other debates unfold, it’s a bit like a serialized made-for-TV movie. And obviously, I await in keen anticipation for the foreign policy debate.