Johnson and Corbyn: not much of a ding-dong. Climate debate: somehow, a pair of melting ice made everyone else look bad. These debates have become a standard feature in British elections. So much the worse.
I suppose it was inevitable. Throughout the ‘90s and 2000s at every election the leader of the opposition would challenge the prime minister to a televised duel. The prime minister would refuse, rightly supposing that whilst it would look good for his opponent, it would not look good for him. The exception to the rule was John Major, prime minister who was the challenger, because he was so far behind in the race. His opponent, opposition leader Tony Blair, this time refused: being so far ahead of Major as he was, it was not as though he had anything to gain.
The result was always that the party of the refused would send a man dressed as a chicken to follow the other one around. Blair turned down four: he was proper chicken.
Then Cameron happened. As the man seeking power, he challenged Brown to a duel. Brown had nothing to lose, so he said yes. Snookered, Cameron had to go ahead with it. He underperformed and threw his majority away.
So I suppose it was inevitable they would happen eventually. But do we, the public, benefit at all? I would say, not. Indeed, I would go further: I think they have become a poison in the political well. First, there is the fuss: what format? Which channels? Who will be involved? Who will be excluded? This year, the Libs and the SNP went to court over this.
And the public yawn.
Then they happen. Only, they do not happen, not in any meaningful sense. The competitors churn out their soundbites in tightly allocated time slots, the intention being to produce something they can package into a tweet. They scrap without analysing each other, pontificate without developing ideas, and your life ticks away irreversibly.
Then the spin. ‘Who won?’
As though it were a game.
And the public ask: is that it?
But the most frustrating dimension is the shallow justifications for it all. That the leaders need to be ‘held to account’; or that the public have the right to see for themselves; that debates are essential to a functioning democracy.
Putting aside the fact the Johnson and Corbyn debate each other in the Commons every week, these arguments fail to distinguish between debate, and a debate. The former is a conversation with the public: it involves print, interviews, the modern trend for fact-checking, good ol’fashioned door-knocking, speaking to voters face-to-face. And it takes time, which is why we have a campaign of several weeks for such a debate to evolve. It is also local: we are a parliamentary system, not presidential, with six hundred and fifty constituencies each choosing their local MP. They have local issues, local concerns and local priorities which they need to discuss amongst themselves and the local candidates. These different dimensions create a public-wide discussion that involve engagement and reflection as well as finely tuned messaging.
A set-piece debate can be a useful thing, if properly run. A misleading argument put forward in print or online can go about the world before a response can even be devised, whereas in a set-piece it can be challenged in the moment. Speech can be persuasive in ways that print cannot (and vice-versa). It can also be an opportunity to witness personalities under pressure, though we can also see this in deep interviews that are televised. But a set-piece works best when it is a clash of ideas advanced by thoughtful advocates who wish to win a principle, rather than power. If the purpose of the debate is not the principle but rather the personality, then it will only be a personality contest. Badly moderated, sound-bitten exercises in rhetorical skirmishing do nothing to illuminate the public, showing politicians at their worst and further eroding what little trust remains in them. At the next election, I hope, but do not expect, for the party leaders to call time on this deranging experiment.