Five vaguely interesting things about that debate

The leaders’ debate might have been teeth-extendingly boring but, if you can bear to look, it did provide a snapshot of the state of politics.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics UK

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‘It was a historic moment’, said shouty newsreader Alastair Stewart, at the end of a debate that felt stubbornly unhistoric. Last night, for the first time in British history, the main party leaders – Labour’s Gordon Brown, the Tories’ David Cameron and the Lib Dems’ Nick Clegg – went head-to-head in a TV studio, precisely, and ironically, at a time when the political parties have little of substance or interest to say. But the debate did, inevitably, provide a snapshot of the derelict state of contemporary politics. Here are five at least semi-notable things it highlighted.

1) Clegg becomes king by default

Everyone (and by ‘everyone’ I actually mean the media – see point No.4 below) is celebrating Nick Clegg’s performance, but they’re not sure why. As one journalist put it, Clegg was the best, ‘even though I struggle to recall much of what he said’. Certainly he was neither liberal nor democratic, proposing tougher policing of immigration and more cops on the streets, and using the MPs’ expenses scandal to disparage politics in general as a corrupt, possibly criminal enterprise that needs more external policing. So why the mad claims that he has made the election ‘come alive’ with his ‘distinctive and optimistic performance’?

Clegg is really a beneficiary of the disarray of Labour and its supporters. Brown said ‘I agree with Nick’ throughout the debate because he recognises that as a result of his own party’s isolation and rapidly declining support he might need Clegg after polling day. And the influential liberal media, which hates the Tories but instinctively recognises that there’s little to celebrate in Brown’s fat, wounded, limping Labour Party, has overexcitedly promoted Clegg as a kind of ‘Blair Junior’, hoping that he can become the battering ram with which they can dent Cameron and Co. They want Kid Clegg to do what they fear Daddy Brown is no longer capable of doing: keeping the apparently evil Tories out of power and thus preserving the dominance of their liberal outlook. Clegg didn’t earn the mad accolades in this morning’s press – he’s merely the king by default, the beneficiary of a massively disoriented liberal-left scrabbling about for a saviour.

2) Politics is drained of all substance

In principle, a televised debate could be a good thing, if it increases public interest in the big political issues of the day. But in our era of small politics spouted by small-minded leaders speaking largely to small constituencies consisting of the media and the active middle classes, last night’s TV debate only exposed – and intensified – the relentless depoliticisation of public life.

Every issue was denuded of its potential importance and reduced to local council-style technicalities. On immigration, there was no debate about free movement. The leaders simply tried to outperform each other over who was the most tolerant and authoritarian – ie, who was the most respectful of migrants’ contribution to British life but also the most determined to control the numbers of them coming in (Cameron quoted ‘a black man’ he recently met to justify his position – the political equivalent of blacking up). The debate about Afghanistan was all about helicopters – not so much ‘should we be there?’ as ‘should we send better equipment there?’ Even the one fairly interesting discussion – on education and the freedom of teachers to teach – turned into a competition over which party will do most to restore discipline in schools. The whole thing was a ‘clash’ of slightly different views on practicalities rather than of visions, and felt more like watching a school governors’ meeting, or a gathering of the Women’s Institute, rather than a meaningful national political debate.

3) Performance trumps conviction

The most striking thing about the media response to the debate is not that it is so inexplicably excitable (the media are effectively patting themselves on the back for allegedly bringing the election to life), but that it is myopically obsessed with the leaders’ performances. It’s not what any of the politicians said that has got the political-observer classes moist – it’s how they spoke, how they squinted, when and whether they smiled, etczzz.

Clegg is applauded for ‘delivering his answers to the camera’, for addressing audience members by their first names, and for being ‘studiedly colloquial’. People used to criticise Blair for his achingly practised glottal stop and Pinteresque pauses. Now they seem implicitly to recognise that this is all that is left in politics – the personality and the performance – and they openly and shamelessly celebrate it. Spin wins. Oral B (toothbrush-makers) even teamed up with body language experts to ‘decode the party leaders’ smiles from last night’s historical live election debate’. We should remind the political class that people must have the right to vote for political ideas that we want to see pursued, not simply for individuals whom we think will be suitably empathetic. Their focus on performance over substance not only speaks volumes about the emptying out of political life – it is also a subtle act of political disenfranchisement of the public.

4) The media write the narrative

spiked has never been a member of the ‘blame the media’ school – we don’t think the Sun won the 1992 election for the Tories or the Daily Mail is brainwashing the masses into believing all immigrants are thieves and gay sex can make you have a heart attack. However, the post-debate media circus does confirm that the media play a disproportionate, undemocratic role in politics today, as they instinctively, and sometimes very keenly, fill the gap left by the demise of mass democratic engagement and public contestation.

The only verdict the leaders cared about was the media’s one – Clegg might have successfully looked into the camera, but he and Brown and Cameron were really talking to the media. This morning, the media are interpreting the leaders’ performances and passing their authoritative judgement on ‘who won and who lost’, as if they were psychic Returning Officers. As a result of the weakness and isolation of the political class, the media are much freer to frame debates and set the agenda, to the extent that, in many ways, the most important thing about last night was not the debate itself but its summation by the Wise Ones of Fleet Street. What we have is a new kind of monarchical court, where politicians’ dress, performance, speech patterns and ideas are increasingly pored over and worked out aloofly, amongst politicians and pressmen.

5) The public is patronised

The focus on performance over serious politics confirms a key trend in contemporary British politics: the exclusion of the masses from public life. The implication of this morning’s discussion about which leader performed best, looked the most honest and sounded the most colloquial is that this is all people should expect from politics – not big ideas to consider or the chance to change the direction of the country, but a leader who will make some kind of primal, emotional connection with their inner child.

One commentator praised Clegg for recognising that the TV debate was ‘aimed not at the logical, but at the emotional part of the voter’s brain’. This is how the voting public is viewed today – less as logical beings with beliefs and desires that ought to be represented, and more as passive emotional blobs who just need Clegg to flutter his eyelashes in order to feel valued. The debate was presented as an exercise in public engagement, but it really revealed the political class’s view of the public as incapable of serious engagement.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics UK


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