This week the British public will see a theatrical spectacle that most other democratic countries have ‘enjoyed’ for decade: a pre-election leaders’ debate.
As Britain heads for the first general election since 1997 that might actually see a change of government, Labour’s reign potentially coming to an end, the stakes appear to be high – but they’re not.
Thursday evening will see prime minister Gordon Brown, leader of the Labour Party, face down a reinvigorated opposition in the form of Conservative leader David Cameron and Liberal Democrat party chief Nick Clegg in the first of three US-style televised confrontations.
Given that the UK was slow to even televise proceedings in parliament on the grounds it was potentially bad for democracy, supposedly causing politicians to perform for the cameras rather than get on with making laws, is this latest move a step forward for democracy or further down the road of politics as theatre?
Well, obviously, it is going to be purely theatrical – but it’s not the television cameras that are the problem.
The media excitement over this contest is more than slightly fraudulent. For a start, British political leaders have always debated. Britain is a parliamentary democracy and the prime minister is regularly grilled by his opposite numbers every week in Westminster, much more robustly than we are likely to see in a studio. How a few structured, television debate consisting of set-piece confrontations on domestic, international and economic affairs adds anything to this is a question that remains to be answered.
In fact what is going on is that, entirely emptied of content, the political parties are vying for voters’ attention as personalities. When these three empty suits take to the stage on Thursday night they won’t be lying to the public as many cynics will complain. After all, in order to lie about politics they would have to believe something in order to conceal it.
The horrific spectacle of identity politics is already well underway: speaking on national television on Monday night David Cameron bared his soul for the audience, fighting back tears speaking about the death of his young son. What this has to do with politics is anyone’s guess, but Gordon Brown did the same a few weeks ago when speaking about the death of his baby daughter.
The only winner in this debate will be the Liberal Democrats, Britain’s perennial bridesmaids. Britain’s two and a half party system means the Liberals have been of little significance since being usurped by the Labour party in 1920. Having all three party leaders on a single platform allows the party to present itself as both being a meaningful electoral force and having an ideological raison d’être. In fact, you couldn’t get a cigarette paper between the three parties on any matter of substance, let alone a ballot paper.
So, congratulations to the Liberal Democrats, then. Given that pundits and pollsters are predicting a hung parliament with neither Labour nor the Conservatives able to take power, the Lib Dems will be able to publicly position themselves as a useful coalition partner for either of the larger parties.
As for meaningful politics, though, Thursday’s event won’t make much of a contribution – except as an epitaph.