Why the TV leaders' debate is not the British way
In America the debate is the ‘thing’. In part because there is, in effect no other ‘thing’. Every appearance by the candidate is managed and reduced to an audience of loyal supporters only. The chance of a heckle, or an encounter with opponents is all but non-existent.
Hence ‘the debate’ is the ‘thing’ – the one moment when some other force – usually a news anchor and three questioning journalists – are unleashed upon all the candidates in debate.
But the ‘thing’, the debate, is so ringed around with rules, agreements, and the rest, that the chance of something exceptional, revelatory, is all but dead.
And so into our system – where the candidate is exposed daily to dozens of journalists, and occasionally even the public, every day of the campaign, either on the street or in phone ins, or at a press conferences – we have imported the American model, ringed it around with English rules, and called it the leaders’ debate.
Net result? The number of press conferences at which ‘the leader’ is present has been drastically reduced. Leaders from all parties are traipsing into loyal living rooms or safe photo ops and the chance heckle, or encounter with a non-supporter, is this year all but ruled out.
This is not the British way. Ours is not a Presidential system. We consolidate our general election campaign into a presidential one at our peril. Today there will be no press conferences, no serious opportunity to quiz the big three parties on anything.
Instead the entire thirty six hour build up is devoted to, yes, ‘the build up’. Three debates, three two day segments of a three week campaign in which effectively nothing happens, until the American imported ‘debate’.
Don’t get me wrong. The biology, the body language, the image of all three party leaders standing lectern to lectern is hugely enticing. And there is the chance of a banana skin.
But there are 76 rules tonight. If the chancellor’s debate is anything to go by, at least one major party will be on the phone at 90 second intervals accusing the broadcaster of breaking the rules. The pressure on all to ‘behave’ is palpable.
But unlike the United States our parliamentary system already brings these three leaders together at weekly intervals on the floor of the House of Commons. They shout at each other. They point score. For some of the electorate it’s too raw.
The joy of a UK general election has been that for a season the electorate’s intersection with the leaders has been on the street, down the phone line, even occasionally in the TV studio without seventy individual rules of engagement.
That day is it seems, done. Tonight will be ‘must watch’ make no mistake, but will it be the organic tussle of politics in the raw that even the most self regarding of political leaders in the past has had to weather?
There is the danger of a ‘beauty contest’.
But there is one far flung hope. That David Dimbleby, who conducts the last of the three debates, knowing it’s too late for anyone to complain, knowing too that this could be the autumn of his general election anchoring, simply rips up the rules and provokes a real debate between the three.
It’s improbable. I may be over-pessimistic. I love the idea of a debate, but I know the reality of escape from encounter and conflict that it may also represent. See what you think. I’ll be the first to accept the error of my American informed view, if I’m wrong.