Taking bets on that sort of debate seems very odd, even though gambling is massively popular over here and it seems people will bet on anything, not just horse races or football games. Big betting firms have outlets all over the place—William Hill is the biggest, with over 2300 betting shops—willing to give you odds on who will win literary prizes, who will be voted off reality TV shows, or even just what kind of weather we’ll get this summer. (William Hill is currently giving 6 to 1 that we’ll break 100F here, and 10 to 1 that we’ll break 103.4, the record high for the UK.) Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without the news reporting how the bets with the bookies are running on which pop song will top the charts to become the Christmas number one.
But on issues such as those, there’s a firm answer. The thermometer will or won’t go that high, the UK will or won’t win the Eurovision Song Contest, and so on. Who is to say who won the debate?
Controversy began before the debate, of course. Tory leader David Cameron complained that the rules were too restrictive; the audience, for example, would not be allowed to applaud. Cameron’s remarks angered one of the negotiators who had spent months with teams from each of the candidates hammering out the rules. In a previous debate between the Chancellor of the Exchequer (in charge of planning the country’s budget) and his opposite numbers in the other two major parties, the Tories complained that the Liberal Democrat’s candidate got too much applause, which they felt would unfairly influence viewers. (Representatives of the Tory party actually phoned the television network three times during that broadcast to complain about the applause.) After that experience, the Tory negotiators insisted that there be no applause in the party leaders’ debates, and they got what they wanted. The outraged negotiator suggested to BBC Radio 4 listeners that Cameron made arrangements in private to keep out applause and then two-facedly told the voters he disapproved of the rule; one of the radio journalists reporting this even suggested that Cameron intended his remarks as groundwork for an excuse in case he didn’t do well.And two more “third” parties, both of them nationalist parties, made their hurt feelings known, since they weren’t invited to appear in this first debate at all: the Scottish National Party, which is neither right-wing nor left-wing, but simply pro-Scotland, and Plaid Cymru, the Party of Wales—at least, I believe that’s the translation. Plaid defeated Google’s translation program when I tried to double check. Cymru does mean Wales, of that I’m certain, and is pronounced COOM-ree. Again, they are neither politically right-wing nor left-wing; they are pro-Wales. But these parties don’t put forward candidates in the whole United Kingdom, just in Scotland or Wales, and very few people belong to those parties in comparison with three major parties. So the SNP and Plaid Cymru weren’t invited, and they made a lot of noise about it.
The Big Three duly showed up in their party colors: Cameron in a blue tie, Brown in a red tie, and Clegg in a yellow tie. When campaigning, candidates and their supporters customarily wear big rosettes in those colors, which makes them look like prize-winning ponies. Throughout Europe candidates on the right wear blue and those on the left wear red; it’s only the USA where those colors are reversed. Americans used to talk about a red menace and commie pinkos, yet when they recently settled on a color code for the politics of different states, they—deliberately or ignorantly—chose a scheme exactly backwards from that used in the rest of the western world and many parts beyond. As for the Lib Dems, who are to the left of Labour, well, red was already taken so they use yellow.
This debate, on domestic policy, is the first of three. (The others will be on foreign affairs and on economic policy.) Originally the planners wanted to vary where the candidates stood so that each would have a chance at appearing in the middle, which the pundits feel is the choice position. But Gordon Brown only has one working eye, and he asked on that account to be on stage left so that he can more easily keep tabs on the proceedings with his good eye. So with his podium stage left, with Clegg stage right, and with Cameron in the center, they took questions from the audience. The moderator gave us a little background on each questioner: this one is a student, that one keeps a pub, this one is a nurse, that one is a train driver, this one is a mother, that one is an ex-Territorial (the Territorials are similar to the US’s National Guard), and so on. They asked about immigration policy, reducing crime, reestablishing the credibility of MPs after the scandals (MPs had been padding expenses, to put it mildly), clearing the budget deficit without damaging economic growth, supporting the troops, earmarking enough money to keep the National Health Service going strong, and what government’s role should be in funding care for the elderly.The candidate’s opening statements set the tone. Clegg said the Liberal Democrats offer a real alternative to the two more established parties; Brown said the Labour party had done great things while in power but these are extraordinary times and only Labour can put the economy back together; and Cameron sang the note he would repeat throughout the evening: Labour’s proposed “jobs tax” will kill the economy.
What he calls a jobs tax is an increase in National Insurance payments (the equivalent in the US would be an increase in Social Security withholdings). I’m not willing to listen to the whole 90 minutes again to check, but I wouldn’t be surprised to find that Cameron managed to get his anti-jobs-tax agenda into the answer of every single question, yes, even the one about care for the elderly; if nothing else, we learned that Cameron knows how to stay on message.
The 90 minutes went by in no time. Although commentators later said that the lack of applause put people off, I thought it was great: no wasted time waiting for the studio audience to express itself. I wasn’t watching to hear what the studio audience thought; I wanted to know what the candidates had to say for themselves. The program could have been much shorter if the phrases “let’s be honest” and “let’s be clear” had been banned. These can mean many things, apparently, from “my opponent just lied about me so let me put the record straight”, to “I need a moment to think” or even “I’m waffling here but I think I can at least convince you I’m sincere.”
They were keen to tell us about all the voters they’d been listening to recently—care assistants (US: care-givers), chefs, ward sisters (that’s a species of nurse), or in one case, someone described as “a forty-year-old black man”. Surely even the Conservatives know that black man isn’t a profession in the way that, say, chef is, but Cameron, as he didn’t mention anyone else’s race, certainly left the impression he found talking to an actual black man a novelty. (A British friend said that by black Cameron was signaling immigrant, but I don’t think that gets him out of the hole he dug for himself at all.)
Brown seemed at times to be trying to paint Labour as the underdog, which is a bit difficult when his party’s been in government for about thirteen years. Cameron had a fairly easy time of it; all he had to do was to point to one bad example of anything that had happened in those thirteen years to put Brown on the defensive; at one point, he used the story of a criminal who left prison and then killed someone during a burglary—shades of Willie Horton. Clegg had an even easier time of it, which could explain why he seemed less nervous that the others. As his party has no record of having been in authority, it couldn’t be faulted for any past mistakes, while he could pull up political gaffs of both Tories and Labour and use them to advantage.But Clegg did more than turn his lack of track record to his advantage. He really did make a better presentation than the others. At one point he said, in a remark that seemed off-the-cuff, that the more the other two bicker, the more they sounded the same, and he had a point. Those two argued about which party had the better plan to get hereditary peers out of the House of Lords, while Clegg pointed out that his party introduced legislation to get rid of hereditary peers, but both Tory and Labour MPs voted against it. The other two both said they supported legislation to allow citizens to recall MPs who misbehaved, while Clegg pointed out that the Lib Dems had put forward legislation for that very thing, just the previous week, but Labour voted against it and Tories didn’t even bother to vote.
And with all of the parties pretty much promising more police officers, better education, more money for health care, and more spending to stimulate the economy, only Nick Clegg’s party can point to a published budget and show where the money will come from. Okay, cutting the Trident missile program is controversial, to say the least, but at least his cards are on the table, while the other parties promise the moon and apparently don’t know, or at least aren’t willing to say, how they’ll fund all that green cheese.
One of the comments on my previous election-themed post asked about the level of debate, and I wrote quite a bit on that, but cut it (you can thank me later), after deciding that readers here probably wouldn’t really want play-by-play coverage (which in the UK would be called ball-by-ball coverage). The level of discourse was professional and courteous. There wasn’t much mudslinging. And the candidates proved the bookies right: everybody thinks Clegg won that one, even Brown and Cameron admitted it.
What that means now is that the press and the voters are scrutinizing the Liberal Democrats’ proposed policies like never before, and Brown and Cameron are reassessing how big a threat the Lib Dems could be. And since Nick Clegg did so well, expectations will be high in the next debate. Now he’s got something to lose, and the pressure is on.