US-style candidates debates – like those between the Conservative leadership contenders – can turn politics into a game of empty soundbites, writes Alastair Stewart
I’ve been thinking a great deal lately about an infamous exchange between Margaret Thatcher and Kirsty Wark from 1990. The Prime Minister, on a visit to Scotland, was discouraged by Scottish Secretary Malcolm Rifkind from saying “You in Scotland” because it was divisive.
“We in Scotland” was the Iron Lady’s ridiculous solution. She continually repeated it, sounding as if she was trying too hard or using the royal pronoun. Aptly named ‘The Thatcher Interview’, the awkward incongruity embodied why Rifkind thought Scots didn’t like her: “She was a woman. She was an English woman. She was a bossy English woman.”
For as much of a political asset as she was, Thatcher did not do subtlety. She was often too uncompromising and aggressive, particularly in interviews and House of Commons debates. The latter only became televised in 1990 after decades of debate about whether to do it, notably with opposition from Thatcher who declared: “My concern is for the good reputation of this House.”
It’s curious to think about how Thatcher would do now in the age of television debates and the national hustings. Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt are in the somewhat ludicrous position of trading blows in front of studio audiences when only 160,000 Conservative members can decide which of them takes a seat in Number 10.
The crux of the issue, or the democratic deficit as some call it, is that a very non-native species of debate has worked its way into the British political environment. Party members deciding their next leader is nothing new, nor are hustings, but to move both to the foreground in front of the public is inviting trouble.
The introduction of television debates ahead of the 2010 election is not compatible with Britain’s political culture or system. In contrast to US presidential elections, Prime Ministers only partially draw their power from the public and nearly all of it from commanding a majority in the House of Commons at the Sovereign’s discretion. The compromising, quid-pro-quo nature of party politics inherent to Westminster – even in the absence of coalitions – raises expectations in debates so far beyond manifesto commitments that disappoint and outrage can only follow.
It’s wrong to think televised national debates improve accountability. Few leaders are soothsayers, and the best, the very best, that can be gleaned is a partial assessment of character. In 2010, Dr Gordon Brown was a fiercely intelligent man; a reputable former chancellor and a formidable Labour politician and yet his TV debate performance was reduced to a critique of how often he smiled.
There should be a genuine worry that we’re becoming too American in our obsession with buzzwords and smooth lines as in presidential debates. It feeds yellow journalism. Election debates are a redaction of complicated policy areas to the vaguest of outlines and reducing Brexit to 30-second sound bites is outright alarming.
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 or how they can shift the result. Cults of personality curtail genuine policy choices in favour of scripted point-scoring which obscures the actual function of government.
American TV debates are more curious as they are among the few occasions when presidents are actually held to account in public. For all the accusations that the UK system has become too presidential since Tony Blair, a British leader stands before the House of Commons every week to defend their government and is accountable to their parliamentary support base. Collective Cabinet responsibility still operates, devolution creates a natural check of power, and the leader of the opposition has a duty of due diligence.
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 problems.
It is critically important that these mechanisms of scrutiny are held in the highest regard but also that a leader can operate as freely as possible – public debates box them into making promises about events that may change, may not occur or may unfold in a dramatically different fashion.
The internet and social media have levelled the playing field already to potentially give smaller parties a platform as big as their larger counterparts. We live in the age of the viral tweet or video. Social media is electrified when debates occur, but they are a merely adrenaline-fuelled cut scene of anxieties that can lead to rash conclusions.
They purport a lazy appreciation of politics. There is, of course, a place for oratorical skill and flourish, but these can’t be the only benchmarks. Prime Minister’s Questions at Westminster or First Minister’s Questions at Holyrood are valuable, but ultimately for the benefit of framing the week’s hot topics, not solving them.
One of the reasons that Winston Churchill remained as Conservative leader after his defeat in 1945 was his popularity. The Conservative Party conspired to remove him to make room for a younger man but could never get past his reputation. To defenestrate Churchill would murder the party in the eyes of the electorate.
The naiveté, excited and regal soundtrack and patriotic narrative, with its received pronunciation narration, of the Pathé newsreels of that time are not as bygone as we might think. It is still naive to believe leaders – through debates – as being one thing or the other when their ability to command a majority, to control the Commons is essentially what matters.
We can only hope debates are a protracted fad. Promoting ignorance about the real operation of our government, whatever one’s thoughts on it are, is a disserve. We’re still a constitutional monarchy, we elect Members of Parliament, who then form the Government, and we do not choose a leader.
So while Britain may be half a half-century behind what the US started with Richard Nixon and John Kennedy in 1960, the UK must remember, particularly with such a complicated subject as Brexit, that soundbites cure nothing.