Watching the American election reminds me just how different the US is to the UK. But thanks to the mass media the UK lives now in the giant cultural shadow of the US.
Don’t get me wrong, some the things we import are great. I for one welcome the burrito boom that has seen Tex-Mex food sweep the nation. The world would be a sadder place without Robert Frost or T.S. Eliot. And helping save Europe from the Kaiser, Hitler and Stalin was pretty good too. Thanks for that.
But other signs of Americanisation are irritating. When did schools in Britain all start having “proms”, or children start calling police constables “feds?” Why do nouns keep turning into verbs (“incentivize”), and the language of business turn into total nonsense? (“drilling down to the key learnings offline reveals the need for a C-suite bandwidth/paradigm shift”).
The import which annoys me most is the attempt to presidentialise our elections. In Britain, we don’t elect a Prime Minister, but a bunch of MPs. However, our political class and some of the media are American politics junkies, and love the frenzy that surrounds the presidential debates. So after years of discussion, the 2010 election saw us finally give into the presidential debate format and hold three leaders debates.
I hated them. I never want them to happen again. Here are the main reasons.
1) Avoiding scrutiny. At first the media loved the debates. Until it became clear that they were the perfect excuse to avoid doing on-on-one interviews, the number of which was dramatically curtailed, with leaders citing the need to prepare for the debates. A long-form interview with a forensic interviewer creates the opportunity to really put leaders’ positions under proper pressure. In contrast, a five minute chunk of a leaders debate means little more than an exchange of soundbites.
As Jon Smow pointed out;
The number of press conferences at which ‘the leader’ is present has been drastically reduced. Leaders from all parties are traipsing into loyal living rooms or safe photo ops and the chance heckle, or encounter with a non-supporter, is this year all but ruled out… Instead the entire thirty six hour build up is devoted to, yes, ‘the build up’. Three debates, three two day segments of a three week campaign in which effectively nothing happens, until the American imported ‘debate’.
2) Soundbite politics. The quality of the debates was dire. Stagey and glib, they brought politics down the Jeremy Kyle level. The supposedly “humanising” anecdotes. Gordon Brown’s pathetic and obvious attempts to “agree with Nick.” Yuck.
3) We have a leaders debate most Wednesdays. Unlike the US, the British system pits the PM against the leader of the opposition week-in, week-out for up to five years. With about 30 sessions of Prime Minister’s Questions each year, that’s up to 150 “leaders debates” in Parliament. Unlike the staged debates, we get to see the leaders up and down, on good days and bad, and responding to events as they happen. And they get questions thrown at them from all sides – even their own party. Which brings me on to…
4) Leaders debates are increasingly dishonest in our system. Unless you live in his or her constituency, you aren’t voting for the PM. I watched the leaders debates mentally totting up the number of things they said which many of their own MPs would disagree with or vote against. You can vote Tory, but get anything between Ken Clarke and Nadine Dorries. Voting Labour could get you Harriet Harman, Frank Field, Diane Abbott or David Miliband.
And the MP you pick matters more and more because Parliament is becoming more “rebellious” (see chart below) – in other words as MPs increasingly think for themselves. Whether it’s tuition fees, hunting, going to war, Europe, human rights or public spending you now need to know about who you are electing, not just the party line.
5) There will be no fair way to decide who to include next time.. Though Obama has won a solid majority in the electoral college, the popular vote split right down the middle (roughly 50 vs 49 percent). In most years in the US, it’s pretty obvious who to invite to the debate unless there’s a really strong third candidate. But in the UK things aren’t so clear. At the last election 36, 29 and 23 per cent of the vote went to the Tories, Labour and the Lib Dems. The SNP and UKIP got 2 and 3 per cent respectively.
But the polls currently have Labour just about 40 percent, the Tories in the low thirties and UKIP and the Lib Dems battling it out on about 10 per cent. So should both Farage and Clegg be included in a future debate, or neither of them? The Lib Dems will recover, but I would imagine UKIP will get a boost from the Euro-elections held in 2014 too, making the point even more controversial. In the totality of their coverage, broadcasters can divvy up time accordingly. But a leaders debate next time will inevitably be unfair to someone.
So leaders debates in Britain are alien, dishonest, trivialising, unnecessary and unfair. They’re one American import we can do without.