First up, if I hadn’t been reviewing the debate on CNBC, there is no way I would have sat through last night’s debate. Political commentators are spinning it as a victory for democracy, and a lot of people seem enthusiastic about it, but to me, it was just three men standing on a stage pontificating and rolling out their favourite soundbites. A real debate would have drawn the party leaders on their plans for Britain, and subjected them to cross-examination and scrutiny – we would have switched off our TVs knowing a lot more about what electing each of them would mean. The ITV debate, by contrast, was nothing more than an exercise in presentation skills.
So how did the candidates fare? Well, Nick Clegg was judged the winner by the commentariat, and opinion polls back them up. I don’t disagree – his anti-politics, ‘let’s-be honest here’ shtick worked well – but Clegg still left me cold. For Clegg is not what he claims – a new kind of politician – but rather just a fresher face in a different tie. And despite his party’s liberal heritage, Clegg is every bit as statist as his opponents. His policy platform is grounded not in principle, but in crude, bash-the bankers, soak-the-rich populism.
What of Brown? It wasn’t a disaster, certainly, but I can’t imagine he won over any swing voters. He only really had two lines of attack, which quickly wore thin. First was his ‘I agree with Nick’ stuff, trying to co-opt Lib Dem support on almost everything. Trouble was, Nick didn’t agree with him and told the audience as much – ‘there’s nothing to agree with’. More annoyingly, Brown just wouldn’t shut up about the £6bn the Tories were going to ‘take out of the economy’. Cutting this 1% of public spending (little more than a rounding error, in fiscal terms) is apparently enough to trigger a double-dip recession, cost thousands of jobs, and decimate public services. Right…
What Brown is seemingly incapable of understanding is that cutting public spending is not ‘taking money out of the economy’: it is leaving money in the private sector where it belongs. The British state, which now accounts for half our GDP, isn’t stimulating anything; it’s just a parasite sucking the life out of productive enterprise. Government does many things it shouldn’t do at all, and the rest it does wastefully and bureaucratically. It desperately needs to be cut down to size, and fast.
So is Cameron the man to do it? His performance was smooth and polished, and he said some nice things that few could disapprove of. But for all his Obama-lite, ‘hopey-changey’ rhetoric, there wasn’t much passion or urgency on display, and few signs of ideological conviction. But then maybe those aren’t things that win elections these days: perhaps it really is all about seeming a lovely fellow and not frightening any horses.
But if that is the case then these debates are emphatically not victory for democracy. In fact, they are little more than a perpetuation of the staggeringly shallow status quo.
* Unlike Cheryl Cole's hair extensions.