Like many, I tuned into last night’s debate with low expectations. I was dubious about the value of having American-style debates in Britain as for the most part their trans-Atlantic counterparts tend not to generate fresh ideas or perspectives. Rather, they are generally highly restrained, very scripted, and ultimately they exist solely to produce sound-bites. My fears were reinforced by the leaders’ frequent use of hokey anecdotes, which reminded me of the last Vice Presidential debate; in that contest, Joe Biden referred to meeting people at Katie’s Restaurant in Wilmington, Delaware. There was a slight problem with his tale: the establishment had long ceased to exist.
There were no errors of that magnitude; the stories were simply irritating especially in instances (e.g., the need for small class sizes) in which citing research would have been more effective. As for sound bites, perhaps surprisingly, the most memorable line came from Gordon Brown but it was not to his benefit: “I agree with Nick”. Indeed, the Labour leader, not known for being a “Liberal-snuggler” by any means, may have unwittingly handed the Liberal Democrats their campaign slogan: I suspect it will be on t-shirts and posters across the nation shortly. Nick Clegg also benefited from appearing to be the least uptight and most charismatic out of the three leaders; perhaps he felt more free to speak as he had the most to gain and least to lose. In this context, it is not surprising that the media and polls have proclaimed him the winner. What is more, he has stepped out of the shadow of his own Treasury spokesman.
In a way, this is cheering. Prior to the debate, I was riding on my exercise bike and watching Andrew Marr’s “The Making of Modern Britain”; as I suffered pain in my legs and felt my heart pound, I watched the episode featuring the General Election of 1906, the last time the Liberal Party had a landslide victory of its own accord. This was a happier moment in the nation’s history, when aristocracy was on the run, reform was on the rise, and giants like Asquith and Lloyd George were coming to the fore. If their modern successors truly want to revive this tradition and adapt it to the modern age, all the better: it will add to the smorgasbord of ideologies from which the British voter can choose.
But we’re not there yet: all three of the “prominent” parties still operate within the strict confines of the existing paradigm. At best, they promise modifications. Perhaps this innate “conservatism” arises from fear; I can’t help but recall something that was said of Bill Clinton after he was defeated for re-election as Arkansas’ governor: “He made it his mission never to offend another voter again”. It would seem that the “prominent three” have picked up this mantra in varying degrees. I suggest, however, that Clegg won because he was the one who was least interested in being inoffensive.
Debates can and should offend: telling the truth often does. Furthermore, debate should not just attack the scapegoats of the day, for example, corrupt MPs and greedy bankers, who are easy, albeit legitimate, targets. There is a significant and just critique to be made of how the country has been run and for whose benefit over the past 20, 30, 40 years, a state of affairs for which there is widespread complicity. Labour and the Conservatives have been interchangeable in many respects, the economy is still reliant on casino finance and pointless consumerism, the parties are “intensely relaxed” about the accumulation of vast fortunes, and all three would leave the super-rich largely untouched. Worse, the life and death matter of our involvement in Afghanistan was reduced to a mere question of supply, rather than that of any good being achieved by remaining there. Still worse, conspicuous consumption has not yet been replaced by conspicuous prudence for the benefit of our well-being and that of the planet. The leaders made do by skirting around the edges of these deeper debates; at no point did they get to the heart of the matter. None had a genuinely radical alternative to offer; the Liberal Democrat “vision” triumphed simply because it was clearer and more appetising than the others. An electorate hungry for real meat understandably preferred a water biscuit to air stew.
The power of an idea lay in its ability to provoke and to jar; it is through the process of putting forward bold ideological propositions that perspectives are changed rather than reinforced. The leaders didn’t dare let in Caroline Lucas because she would have attacked the assumptions upon which they largely rely. In this revised context, who was radical and who stood for the status quo would have been perceived quite differently. The scripted men in grey suits would have been left sputtering for answers, and perhaps the electorate would have felt like a genuine choice was on offer. Perhaps, the voters may have also felt more inspired to choose.
I suspect that the three leaders are in varying states of distress or triumph this morning. Brown should be delighted that he didn’t completely lose his temper, but at the same time he must know that he looked exhausted and came across as bereft of ideas. Cameron should be concerned that his performance was two dimensional, smeared with cosmetics, covered in gobs of marketing ooze and everyone knows it. Clegg is perhaps treating himself to a glass of champagne along with breakfast while basking in the glow of favourable headlines. However, those of us who get up early, drive to work as the sun rises, sit at our desks or work in our factories or tend our hospitals have little stake in these petty disasters or triumphs; we are entitled to know more about what will be done on our behalf, what kind of future lay in store, and to have a full palette of ideas from which to choose.