Last night’s ‘Battle for Number 10’ TV event wasn’t a debate. Channel 4 and Sky News were at pains to tell us that in advance. It was a Q&A apparently – with some of the Qs delivered by Jeremy Paxman (in typical curmudgeon fashion) and others under-arm bowled by members of the public. Oh and Kay Burley asked a few questions too (such as her killer question to the Prime Minister about how many shredded wheat he could eat).
On Twitter, pundits and hacks and commentators were scrambling around looking for pithy one-liners. Various ‘think-tanks’ were doing real-time analysis and generating little line-graphs that illustrated, apparently, which leader was ‘winning’.
But the thing had no substance. If Paxo couldn’t create sufficient squirming with his question to the PM about zero hours contracts, he moved on. The questions were staccato. The evasions were obvious. Paxo, Public, Public, Paxo. Cameron. Miliband.
The winning or losing wasn’t really the point. It was about point scoring. It was about the broadcasters being testing. It was about Paxo being nasty. It was about the Public, possibly, being disarming. The whole thing was built on a structure that might just unsettle Cameron or Miliband just enough that they might just say something remarkably and shockingly stupid. But they didn’t.
But the thing is – both leaders almost came unstuck. They almost made fools of themselves. Cameron appeared not to know the extent of UK public debt. Miliband appeared not to realise that he was a North London geek.
But one wonders what the point of these things is. Debate isn’t really debate. For one thing, Cameron doesn’t really want to play any more. As a leader he knows that what he says or thinks might only serve to unsteady his ship, his internal supporters within the party and his voters. The entire edifice of government is a house of cards built on foundations of bland.
Modern politics has been debased to the level of poking around within the minutiae while ignoring the big stuff. Grand political visions and strategies are ignored while we watch and tweet in hope that the leaders might make public fools of themselves – for our collective delectation. But the leaders play the game too. They are constantly checking the cards, fiddling with the edifice, terrified that the whole thing might just crash at any second.
Cameron has realised, it would appear, that public debates are a step too far – they are media inspired public spectacles, and a hunger game where no-one really wins. Policy becomes the stuff of ridicule. Political argument, during an election campaign, is ideologically bereft.
The trick, for success, is masterly inactivity. Say nothing of any substance. Don’t rock the boat. Don’t imply any grand visions. Don’t, for goodness sake, suggest any political passion – it comes across a little like desperation. Miliband, when arguing he was tough (“hell yes”) sounded just a little bit too much like the Milky Bar kid.
All this is a great pity for those of us who like our politics raw and undiluted – visceral, ideologically grounded and rambunctious.
But that kind of politics is dead and buried – and from another era. Instead we must grow to love a political diet of safety, question dodging and on-the-fly question paraphrasing. Such is modern politics.