As the UK gears up for three 'American-style' debates between the leaders of its main parties, Stephen Robinson says it is a misguided attempt to restore dignity to politics.
Going head to head
Our politicians in Britain have spent much of the past six months or so fending off public contempt for their misconduct in their shameless abuse of the parliamentary expenses regime. The more they seek to justify their larceny, the lower they have sunk in public esteem. The worse the economy performs, the more voters resent the tax-free bungs they have secretly been awarding themselves. With a general election looming in the first few months of 2010, and with public anger still boiling, a terrible prospect terrifies the political establishment. Next year's turnout could be embarrassingly low as voters flaunt their contempt for their rulers. Some suggest it could be the lowest turnout since the Second World War. This week, which is not traditionally the time of year for big political announcements, the British voter learnt how the leaders of the three main political parties - Labour, Conservative, and Liberal Democrat - hope to put the annus horribilis 2009 behind them. They have rolled the dice and committed themselves to a new departure in British politics with what are being billed as three 'American-style TV debates'.
This invoking of the US presidential system is designed to give a modern, forward-looking gloss to this desperate attempt to pump blood around the cadaver of British parliamentary politics. Until now, British voters have had to make do with the most deadly form of TV scheduling, the Party Political Broadcast. This is a five-minute slot for which normal programming is suspended to allow the main political parties to set out their dull political wares in poorly scripted infomercials.
These broadcasts begin to surface a few weeks before election day, introduced by the continuity announcer with a portentousness that has viewers in their millions snatching the remote control and desperately searching for something more compelling to watch, such as the shopping channel, or motocross from Namibia. But what of the American version of the political jousting, these live debates between the presidential contenders?
John F Kennedy was said to have got the better of Richard Nixon in their first 1960 debate because he looked young and handsome while Nixon, all jowly with five o'clock shadow and a sweaty upper lip, seemed shifty and defensive. Twenty years later, the Republican challenger Ronald Reagan brilliantly skewered Jimmy Carter's preachiness by intoning: "There you go again". And another 12 years on from that, in Governor Bill Clinton's first tilt at the presidency, George Bush senior was seen towards the end of one debate looking distractedly at his watch, like an anxious commuter wondering if he'd make the last train home. I was in Washington covering that election for a British newspaper, and I remember writing a piece predicting that was the precise moment George HW Bush lost the 1992 election.
That was a plausible enough argument at the time, but I wonder now if it is true. We all have an exaggerated faith in live television's ability to expose underlying truths about our political leaders, but in most cases television merely reinforces the truth, or confirms our individual prejudices. Richard Nixon didn't just look like a crook as he sweated under the TV lights, he was a crook; Jimmy Carter was indeed a prig who made Americans feel miserable about themselves for four years; and though Reagan was smart enough to ride the wave with that put down of Carter, he did not create that wave.
George Bush senior appeared like a remote Ivy League-educated American toff because that is what he is, and in the recession of the early 1990s, Americans wanted a populist southerner who could feel their pain. Similar impulses could be detected in last year's debates between Barack Obama and John McCain. Most pundits assumed that the Republican won one of the debates, deftly landing blows about Obama's lack of experience, but instant telephone polls showed that ordinary voters warmed to the younger man with his more optimistic vision.
More targeted, scientific polling suggested that Americans had detected evidence of a smouldering temper behind John McCain's attempts to appear cheerful and folksy. Therein lies a warning for Gordon Brown in the forthcoming British debates. Like McCain, Brown is clearly better qualified to be prime minister, more experienced, more worldly, especially compared to David Cameron, the languid Eton and Oxford educated son of privilege whose work outside politics amounts to a brief stint as a PR man, and who has been an MP for only eight years.
But all the evidence from America suggests voters don't want experience, they want youthful vigour. They don't want dark reflections on the dire state of the nation, they want optimism; they want the man who can lead them to the sunny uplands of economic recovery and global peace. Reagan could win in 1980 and 1984 despite his advanced age because he had the jolly, self-confident demeanour of a man half his years. The problem for Brown is that he looks so grey and exhausted that he makes the voters depressed just by looking at him.
Brown is the Nixon character, baggy eyed, with a face which occasionally contorts itself into a terrifying, unconvincing grin. It is said that his office in 10 Downing Street is littered with bits of cell phones and photocopiers hurled at walls during his volcanic temper tantrums: truly Brown looks like a man fighting a losing battle with his inner demons. The danger for him is that if he can be provoked, perhaps over his mismanagement of the economy over the past 12 years, then he might lose his temper on screen, and blow the election completely.
Clearly, Brown has decided that while Labour is trailing the Conservatives in opinion polls by between 9 and 12 points, he has nothing to lose by taking the risk, even if he is by any measure a dreadful television performer. But there are risks for Cameron, too. First, it is not a straight contest with Brown, for Nick Clegg, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, will also appear, handing the third party of British politics an enormous boost by placing them on a footing with the two dominant parties.
Cameron and Clegg are both confident, well-spoken privately educated men, who give the impression of never having had to struggle very much in life. Brown, by contrast, the state-educated son of a Scottish church minister who lost the sight of one eye in a youthful rugby accident, might have some success as presenting himself as the defender of the ordinary voter when public spending is inevitably cut next year.
In his recent political comments, Brown has resorted to old-fashioned British class warfare, accusing the Tories of a secret plan to curb public services while cutting taxes for the wealthy few. This sort of rhetoric has not brought electoral success in Britain for five decades, and the expectation must be that it will not save Brown this time around. Nevertheless, politicians can say peculiar things in live debates, for the fear of committing a gaffe often becomes self-fulfilling. Hence Gerald Ford's confident assertion in 1976 that "there is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, and there never will be under a Ford Administration." There is no way back from a boob like that.
British politicians have more experience in debating one another than their American counterparts because the prime minister is required to submit himself to weekly question time in the House of Commons, when opposition MPs are expected to be as rude as possible to him within the bounds of parliamentary language. But these gladiatorial contests last a lively 30 minutes at most; these three televised debates are to run at 90 minutes each, a buttock-numbing total of four and a half hours, long enough to perform a crisply-edited version of Wagner's Ring cycle.
Boredom of the voter is probably the key threat here, and any vaguely independent viewer will hope that the party leaders do not behave like gentlemen in the television studio. The British have never viewed politicians with as much contempt as they do today. Watching the three party leaders showing elaborate deference and courtesy to one another truly will be too much for the rest of us to bear. * The National