There’s something to be said for hitting up old political videos on YouTube. During one such perusal, I was reminded of the infamous interview of Margaret Thatcher and Kirsty Wark in 1990. The then Prime Minister was encouraged by Malcolm Rifkind, the Scottish Secretary, to avoid saying, “You in Scotland” because it was divisive. The Iron Lady then proceeded to speak several times about “We in Scotland” as a way of squaring the circle of her government and the Scottish electorate. As Rifkind later said, the awkward incongruity beautifully embodied why Scots didn’t like her: “She was a woman. She was an English woman. She was a bossy English woman.”
The episode is a modern epigram for TV rubbing people up the wrong way. The TV interview or TV moment and now leaders’ debates are an entertaining spectacle, but do they matter beyond pushing participants into infamy if they cock-up? Michael Howard repeatedly dodging a question from Jeremy Paxman or John Prescott punching a protester to name but a few which still linger many years after the event.
Yet we now have TV debates as part of our electoral process, with Labour even promising to make them a mandatory occurrence. Pollsters and pundits jump up and down as to how a debate can alter the perception of a single candidate, a leader or a party. Many rejoiced in the 2010 and 2015 general election debates, the referendum debates and the run-ins between Nick Clegg and Nigel Farage the same we do Eurovision; a dash of ironic excitement and an excuse to get pissed.
But to state an obvious point lost to the organisers of the 2010 and 2015 general election debates, UK governments are formed from the party with the highest number of 650 seats which are, in turn, elected on a first-past-the-post, constituency basis. Any party, whether it is their inaugural or hundredth election, has the potential to sweep the board or lose it all. Trusting government to polling is all but a surrender of democracy to an oligarchy of polling companies.
There’s a real fear that we’re becoming too American in their emphasis on flash and smooth lines in presidential debates which are coordinated and scripted months in advance of the event. So far our only real experience of this has been weekly PMQs at Westminster or FMQ’s at Holyrood or the Welsh Assembly. These spectacles are more sounding boards for topical issues and point scoring through oratorical skill than a sluggish analysis of issues, and they’re acknowledged by all as such.
It’s worth remembering that presidential debates to UK debates are like comparing a drunken truth or dare with your university finals. The game is fundamentally different. The leader of a UK party or future prime minister has monumentally more power than a president in terms of scope. They are from and for the largest party in the House of Commons and can implement a broad legislative agenda by right of a majority. American presidents can seldom ever truly transform the issues that they talk about bar foreign affairs and some domestic issues. Don’t take my word for it, look at the US Constitution and the separation of powers.
Ultimately, there is a gravitas to the American presidential elections. The ‘most powerful man in the world’ is a moniker still true, but only just. It might be more accurate to say the ‘most powerful man in the English-speaking world’ or in the ‘Western hemisphere.’ Either way, when British debates do what Margaret Thatcher did and become so horribly meta that they exchange substance for appeal then we all lose a key tenant of our democracy: we’re still constitutional, we elect members of parliament in their highest number form a government and we do not elect a leader. Shoe-horning leaders from the smallest to the largest party into electoral debates is important, and they should be represented nationally. But there must also be a core debate, a realistic debate, one formed on the convention that whichever four party leaders held the highest share of the vote in the last election can have a debate between themselves. Smaller, the better and only then can we limit real scrutiny being exchanged for a series of opening and closing statements.
So while Britain may be half a half century behind what the US started with Nixon and Kennedy in 1960, the real lesson the UK should remember is that any one of its political leaders could, somehow, end up on top and should be given air time accordingly but in a realistic format. Of course, the Monster Looney Raving Party should be represented, such is its right, but equally in a different debate, the SNP must have a chance to go toe to toe with UKIP to ensure the public knows their positions inside out.
The full 3D image of a leader can be achieved with television debates, but to make it a personality contest and forget that, contrary to our American friends, these leaders will hold barely constrained legislative power is a dangerous omission. At present, the press and social media are electrified when debates occur, but they are merely a cut scene of anxieties, like an adrenaline-fuelled sugar rush of excitement that can lead to rash conclusions. It is a serious error to dismiss the debates and TV appearances as novel irrelevancies
We shouldn’t then just have one or two debates, but an entire debate season either through the internet or on television. Or both. The public has a right and it’s in everyone’s interest to expand this new procedure.