Friday, April 16, 2010

Election Debate, Round One

So, yesterday the three chaps who want to be Prime Minister went head to head on TV. I confess, I have had some misgivings about this debate. I wondered in advance whether it would be a good format for discussion of policy and argument over important issues; I feared that it would instead just reinforce that central weakness of democratic politics, namely that people just vote for whoever seems the nicest man. After the debate, I feel those fears were justified. I would struggle to pick winners and losers. Unlike the debate between the potential chancellors, which I thought showed all three men in a good light, last night's little show didn't improve my opinion of anyone's policies. It made me think I'd rather go to the pub with Nick Clegg, but I'm not sure that means I want him running the country.

The big frustration for me was that there was not enough argument. The debate proceeded by claim and counter-claim. Cameron says money can be saved by cutting waste; Brown says it can't; Clegg waffles on about nothing in particular. I really wanted someone to stand up and say 'we have a vision for Britain, and this is why it is better than the vision our opponents are advancing'. I thought Cameron might do that. The Conservative manifesto finally got me excited that we might have a real contest about what society ought to be like. But it didn't materialise on the night. Instead we got bickering over detail.

An example: Trident. Clegg says scrap it, saying money which could be better spent; Brown and Cameron say keep it in case we need to nuke North Korea. Neither is a good argument. Behind the two approaches, one feels there must be more fundamental differences, relating to how the party leaders see the role of Britain in the world. What sort of country do we want to be? Do we want to keep playing with the big boys in terms of geopolitics, or do we want to retire to a lower league? I don't want to imply a value judgement in using that terminology. It may well be that the time has come to step back. (Actually, I personally don't think so). But nobody made a case, one way or the other. Nobody at this debate was giving me a metanarrative: a story of Britain's 21st century that I can believe in and get on board with.

Similarly on economic questions. I wanted Cameron to make the case for small government, but instead he just tried to reassure people that the Tories wouldn't make too many cuts. Clegg talked a lot about cuts, but for him it was clearly just an unfortunate necessity. Brown, of course, just wants to go on spending money. I was particularly disappointed in the way Cameron and Brown talked about spending issues. They were discussing fundamentally different views of how society works, and what government should and shouldn't do. But that never came across.

Still, if I had to pick winners:
1. Cameron. Mainly just for having the best closing speech. Of course, it helped that I mostly agreed with what he said. But disappointed that he didn't really argue for his course of action. Weaknesses on inheritance tax showed up the fact that the Tories still don't quite get the public mood on this.
2. Clegg. Had nothing to say, but said it pleasantly enough. I think I detect him positioning the Lib Dems for a Tory coalition.
3. Brown. I thought he behaved poorly throughout, defensive in tone and posture, frequently talking over the others and the (fairly ineffectual) moderator. Had no answer to any problem except to throw more money at it.

I really hope the next two debates have more substance to them. And I rather hope that next time round there won't be debates, but I expect that's too much to ask.

No comments:

Post a Comment