Could we please have no television debates between the party leaders either before or during the general election? My colleague Pete Hoskin yesterday wrote an admirably balanced piece about the pros and cons of Downing Street’s proposed format for the debates. I hope this gives me the licence to make the case against having any debates at all.
These contests reduce politics to the level of a celebrity talent contest. They are demeaning for everyone concerned, except perhaps for a few television people whose sense of self-importance swells to intolerable proportions.
The contestants arrive for the debate with their weary heads crammed full of cutting sound-bites to use against their rivals. They make a superhuman attempt to sound like normal human beings, while also seeming statesmanlike, while also hitting their opponents below the belt. They produce implausible anecdotes about having met someone normal in Plymouth the day before yesterday. The one thing they feel unable to do in this format is to be themselves. One discovers, I suppose, whether a middle-aged man is capable of learning new tricks, but one never hears a continuous argument presented for more than a very short period without interrruption.
It may be said that the present generation is incapable of producing continuous arguments: is incapable, in other words, of giving speeches. That is too pessimistic a view. David Cameron became Tory leader by giving a better speech than David Davis. When it is worth their while to speak well, these people can do it. Not long ago John Major delivered an excellent speech to a press gallery lunch: I did not hear it myself, but happened to meet a group of hard-bitten lobby journalists coming out of the lunch, people who had been as unkind as anyone about Major during the 1990s, who said that on this occasion he was wonderful. While on the subject of Major, one may recall what a hit he made during the 1992 election campaign by getting on his soap box in Brixton and talking directly to the public, rather than to some carefully selected audience for the benefit of the television cameras.
To speak well takes enormous effort. Churchill devoted vast amounts of his time both to studying the speeches of other great orators, and to composing his own. What use would that have been to him if he was just required to go on some game show?
The reader may detect a faint note of irritation in these remarks. I am irritated, for I remember the ghastly circus which dominated the 2010 general election. Gordon Brown, Nick Clegg and David Cameron played their three-man show for the benefit of the television cameras in a different provincial city each week. I attended all three of these occasions, so saw the swirling mass of spin doctors desperately trying within a few chaotic minutes to persuade the swirling mass of journalists that their man had somehow emerged victorious, or at least had not done too badly.
Clegg profited most from this charade. He was able to present himself as the man to vote for if you despaired of Brown but were not convinced by Cameron. Because least was known about Clegg, he was in the best position to sound fresh and new and all those other qualities which last about as long as a bunch of daffodils once one is in power.
Down with the television debate. Far from being a new and excitingly democratic way of reaching the wider public, is an old-fashioned form, at once cumbersome and trivial, which has outlived its political usefulness. If one watches such debates, one is likely to be bored rigid, for they go on too long: twice as long as Prime Minister’s Questions. If one doesn’t watch them, one finds oneself relying on other people’s impressions, which are most often not the impressions one would have formed oneself.
And the debates crowd out other forms of communication. I don’t just mean speeches. At an early-morning press conference during an election campaign, a politician can be subjected to penetrating questions from journalists who have actually studied whatever the subject of the day happens to be: local government finance, perhaps. I have watched a broadcaster like Andrew Neil do this, and very good he is at it too. Nothing like that can happen when you get all three (or more) party leaders on all at once, all trying to gun each other down.
My guess is that Cameron wishes to hold no television debates, but that in order to avoid saying so, he is instead going to suggest various formats which the other contestants will reject. James Chapman, political editor of the Daily Mail, seemed to reckon that is Downing Street’s game when he cast an eye over the political scene on last night’s Westminster Hour. But it would be braver of the Prime Minister to say that the House of Commons is the place to hold debates. Better still, he and his rivals might start delivering speeches which are not just designed as the verbiage in which to wrap various soundbites.