Andrew Wilson: Throw open the TV debates
It will make great telly. And that is what matters, isn’t it?
The Green party leader won’t do it, and the other women leading the SNP and Plaid Cymru would rather talk about the issues people in their parochial shires care about… boooooring when what we want is bullring. Move aside.
It is all about entertaining telly, isn’t it? Otherwise why have debates? We need three men, possibly four, in a gladiatorial fight to the death. It would be really good if we could throw Boris and George in as well, but we couldn’t get away with that. So let’s make do with the establishment three plus the establishment “me”. TV heaven.
The debate about the debates in the forthcoming UK election is not quite as risible as this of course. But at times it feels like it.
The broadcasters are gingerly stepping through the minefield of the increasingly diverse landscape of UK politics. They are left clinging to the old certainties that can be sustained in a planning meeting but don’t wash when aired in the different light of different parts of the land they serve.
Whoever appears there will be moments when the content is entirely irrelevant to some of the viewers. Clegg fighting Miliband on who is trusted least with the NHS is of no import to viewers in Swansea or Seamill where other governments are in charge of that public service.
Nicola Sturgeon may only represent a party running in 59 of the 650 seats but she would be the sole voice arguing for policies like exchanging expenditure on replacing Trident nuclear weapons for expenditure on public services we all need.
She also leads a party with more members than the Liberals and Ukip combined at a UK level.
Having six or seven leaders on stage may seem like a complex creative production problem. It is. But it is hardly insurmountable.
Giving Northern Ireland its voice and place in the UK debate would add to the scale of the issue. But it must be considered properly. We may find there are lessons from their ways for elsewhere. What a radical idea.
Anyway, five years of our governance and democracy ought not to hinge on a gladiatorial exchange between three men in suits who agree about most things, mostly went to the same schools and live in the same place. And you can’t judge the best prime minister by one televised It’s a Knockout-like contest. Some of history’s best prime ministers would probably have failed that test.
Part of the reason so many are so disaffected is because Westminster has evolved into a hermetically sealed bubble of contrived dispute harnessed to the day’s news cycle.
Big problems stalk the land and grand opportunities lie undiscovered. But they pass the politics of now by because siren voices will not be heard and the centre grips on for sheer life to power. The evidence from everywhere tells us that institutions led by distant elites impervious to the quiet voices of the front line always, always fail. Challenge to the normal of now is imperative. If the concept of a three or four header debate proceeds it will only reinforce the impression that the UK establishment has failed to keep pace with the population they lead.
Go for the more democratic option and one startling conclusion will need to be reached, which is the current electoral system is unsustainable. The stability of majority enforced on minority was about justifiable when two parties pretty much spoke for most people in most places. Those days are long gone. That would scream from the TV screen to even the most imperviously unreformed.
We learned this week that the current party of government at Westminster has the grand total of five Tory members in one constituency. Not in the east of Glasgow (where the numbers were not published) but in Edinburgh East, the once Conservative capital of north Britain.
Britain is transforming in all sorts of ways. Whether the centre of power can hold on to legitimacy will depend on its ability to flex and reform its culture. It must embrace the increasing differences of the peoples it serves and learn to let go of both power and the old ways of doing things.
Televised leader debates should not be the decisive factor in any election. Any good actor can get through an hour of TV.
Track record, character, a voice for people like our own and a sense of governing competence is what will determine where we place our trust. As will a true sense of optimism. Whatever else is going on in the world, it is time to hear that tomorrow will be sunnier than today.