This was their finest hour and a half: UK Election 2015 Debate No.4

There are several generalized reasons why televised election debates ought to be given a miss: they are usually dull; they usually don’t matter much (and when they do, this is primarily a function of how they are read in the news media and why); they are designed by (American-trained) political professionals for other (American-trained) political professionals, which is to say that instead of attempting to function as mass communication platforms for educating voters about different parties’ policies and the likely effects of such policies, televised election debates (“TV clashes”) are basically low-quality infotainment that works to sustain public ignorance…One could throw in the question of elections themselves. Rather than the be-all and end-all of democratic politics, elections are arguably not as important as the competition between and among political machines, lobbies, organized interests, ideologies and/or discourses (depending on one’s pet theory) that takes place outside the electoral system. These hidden, behind-the-scenes currents of power do not determine what happens in voting booths, by they do exert a great deal of influence what election winners can and cannot accomplish once they assume office.

Running against all of these ancient arguments, I found myself being magnetically drawn to today’s UK Election 2015 (National) Debate No. 4—the BBC one that brought together the leaders of the five opposition parties represented in Westminster, with David Dimbleby as the chair. The reasons can be described as quirky and random. First, earlier this week I felt some UK-centric nostalgia, which I simultaneously fed and fended off by reading the Daily Mail. There I learned that this year’s election race is the most interesting ever: laden with anti-establishment attitudes and articulations, hung parliament-bound, no-holds-barred nasty, and absolutely critical for the future of Britain and of the EU. Big three weeks ahead, apparently.

I also got puzzled by the label “Challengers’ Debate.” I understand that this event was dreamed up as a compromise solution to get Britain’s prime minister to show up in these showdowns in the first place, but still: who’s challenging whom? Aren’t all debates involving some challengers? Isn’t Nick Clegg supposed to be one of those now? (Maybe the broadcasters really meant to call it “Downtime with Also-Rans” or “This Hour and a Half is for the Other Guys and Gals”?). The absence of Northern Irish party leaders quickly became an even greater puzzle. Sure, some the parties coming from across the narrow sea have a historically “difficult” relationship with Parliament, but certainly not all. What about the Democratic Ulster Unionist Party, for example? This particular outfit was not only an opposition party in the last parliament, but its presence there was larger than that of the Greens, Ukip, and Plaid Cymru combined. And it is no less “nationally relevant” than, say, Plaid. Yes, I read my Rokkan & Unwin, Mitchell, and others, and I know how and why this particular union state/state of unions gives raise all sorts of institutional anomalies, but this one is a major head-scratcher.

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One last quirky reason for watching the event: I decided I wanted to witness an election debate in which women outnumbered men, which some British media interpreted as “yet another sign” of the growing gender parity in UK politics. That all-female Debate No.4 group hug will doubtless gain headlines in the same way.

Of course, the only perspective from which one could vaguely hope to enjoy a televised election debate is that an amateur theater critic (and yes, this applies to the Radio 5 Live version). After all, these things are performances in the sense that they are staged to re-present something to an audience or audiences.

Accordingly, let me begin with the stage set. The BBC is a world leader in the production design of election debates not due to its budget but due to the good sense of its producers and project managers who know not to go overboard. First and foremost, there was none of that awful rolling text running from right to left across showing live polling results and whatnot. Next, kudos for that oversized still image of the Palace of Westminster and for the imperceptible shifts of the colour scheme. I also liked how the image was project across multiple panels, which had the effect of framing candidates from different camera angles. Those BBC-logoed lecterns looked solid for tired candidates to lean on (and none of that standing blocs for guests who feel short nonsense here). The grandest thing was the venue itself, the Methodist Central Hall. The huge church organ, lit blue-purple, provided an unusual backdrop for those wide audience shots. Perhaps this was meant to be symbolic, suggesting that church and state, in England at least, are still mates. No shots of that magnificent domed ceiling, though.

The stage line up of the key dramatis personæ was partly reflective of their positions on the political axis (or the compass?). Natalie Bennett from the Greens got center stage, possibly as a nod to the party’s hybrid left-libertarian identity. The Plaid Cymru leader, Leanne Wood, was to Bennett’s left, followed by Ed Miliband, Leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition. On the right side of Bennett stood Nicola Sturgeon, First Minister of Scotland and the SNP leader, and to the right side of Sturgeon stood UKIP’s Nigel Farage. I don’t think on most social and economic issues most of the time Plaid is more left-wing than either the SNP or the Greens (to say nothing about Labour being placed as the left of the left), but Farage surely deserved to anchor the far right end.

Discounting the well-rehearsed opening and closing statements, the debate proved to be good theater overall: a mix of melodrama, mime, commedia dell’arte, and puppetry, with occasional disappearing acts. Sturgeon and Wood impressed me the most, especially the first. The way she cornered Miliband on the coalition question was epic. Wood, too, scored some points against Miliband but most of them were easy ones, against Farage. I also noticed that Wood talked about Wales (a lot) and Sturgeon talked about Scotland, but neither brought up the question of the UK’s territorial constitution. Similarly, the UK media I read seem consumed about London-centrism (i.e., north-south imbalance etc.), but this didn’t seem to warrant a single raw exchange. Was this by design?

As the sole majority-hunter in the group, Miliband predictably received a disproportionate number of attacks. Can’t say he did well tonight. After some initial nervousness—he almost knocked off one of the mikes at one point—he held his own, but then in the end he got really rattled by Sturgeon. I liked how he closed in to Farage over the UKIP’s racism, but I didn’t buy the part where he explained why he decided against supporting Cameron on the Syria vote, among other explanations. He also loved staring straight into camera rather than looking at his opponents. Definitely not the best actor of the five.

In contrast, I can see why Bennett gets bad press—she is the least PR-managed of the lot, stiff and uncertain of her place among the candidates. Which is too bad since I wish she could get people—not just the British voters of course—to read the Green party’s website. Indeed, not only was Sturgeon’s anti-nuclear statement more convincing than Bennett’s, but even Miliband’s non-defence defence of immigration somehow sounded better than what Bennett had to say about the same from the perspective of her first-gen immigrant experience. And why describe nukes as “hideous” twice within three seconds? [1]

Farage was very good as himself: called the studio audience false, Miliband a liar (twice), and Russia a neighbour (sic!). He was also supremely confident in his nonsense about the law of supply and demand, health care, immigration and Europe (I lost my HD stream early on, but I think I spotted the continental pinstriped suit as well as the classic immigrant to Britain tie). The dismissal of the audience was an unabashed play for working class conservatives’ sympathies, and it probably worked (and, remarkably, neither the audience nor the moderator could make him wear the shame about that). Agree or disagree with his politics, no one can accuse Farage of being bad on/for TV. Once the challengers closed things up by burnishing their “change you can believe in” credentials, the UKIP leader collected his notes and, rather than even look up, proceeded to walk off the stage, “up yours Delors”-style.

I think I’ll now watch the Question Time special, too.

[1] I’d like to offer a small correction to all challengers: the Trident nuclear weapon system is NOT the UK’s to “keep.” Since 1958, when the UK signed an agreement on nuclear weapon cooperation with the US, successive UK governments have basically shared sovereignty on this file. British nuclear warheads are co-developed and co-produced with America, where they are also tested and maintained; the Trident II D5 missiles are leased from the Pentagon, and all Trident subs regularly leave the Clyde to go to King’s Bay, GA for maintenance and upgrades [btw, the UK’s new F-35s will probably be subject to the same system]. Furthermore, Britain’s nuclear weapon capability today almost entirely depends on the U.S. military “command of the commons.” It is therefore very interesting that Trident may be THE stumbling block for the potential Labour-SNP coalition. The fact that the semi-sovereign aspect of this weapon system is nobody’s electoral business—compare this to anything vis-à-vis the EU—is evidence of a certain Anglosphere “senso commune.”

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