Yesterday evening, I tuned into BBC 1 to watch the last of the “Prime Ministerial Debates” before the General Election that the UK is, apparently, going to have next week. I won't be saying a lot about policy here – instead, I will concentrate on my (outside) view of the whole process.
First and foremost, one thing surprised me, and, I expect, many other viewers as well: As the BBC analyst put it, smiling ear to ear, after the show: “It was a debate!”, and this is, as far as I can tell, far from the norm when it comes to this kind of programme. I must admit that I had never before watched a “debate” like this in full, but what little I did see of the equivalent German and American shows, “debate” is usually more of a euphemism than a description. Gordon Brown at least not only attacked David Cameron at every occasion, but followed the arguments of his opponents and reacted to them without switching to a completely different question the answer to which he happened to have memorized — one of Cameron's favourite tactic. He, the Conservative leader, was less interested in civil debate: Cameron systematically ignored nearly everything that came from the left just to regularly and skillfully switch to blurting memorized P/R bla at the camera.
Between Brown's constant attacks in the vague direction of Margaret Thatcher and Cameron's occasional snide remark about the current government, Nick Clegg really ended up looking rather useless, almost only responding to anything on the rare occasion that someone attacked Liberal policy for a change. This – the slightly disadvantaged position of the new kid in town – is hardly surprising: the emergence of a new force in parliament always takes some adjusting. It certainly looks like British politics are morphing from a two-party system to a three-party system, and a change like that always means a certain amount of turbulence; if you live in Germany, you probably won't have forgotten the growth of the Left party, creating a five-party system, not so long ago.
But what will the results be like? Of course, we can't know. But let's assume we did know what the population, as a whole, wanted: It wouldn't happen. In the UK's bizarrely distorted majority-based system, perfectly normal election results produce bizarre parliaments, sometimes involving MPs being chosen by dice instead of voters. (I think this happened 2005, but I can't find a source) It's perfectly plausible that the party that gets the most seats might not have the most votes. Small parties, of course, don't stand a chance. Even if 10%25 of votes went to the Greens, or even the Pirates, there's a fair chance that they wouldn't win a single seat.
Anyway, let's say we do end up getting the hung parliament that would have suited the Britons' votes for decades; what happens then? In a three-party system, every coalition would be possible: Conservative-Liberal, Labour-Liberal, or, of course, the grand coalition. The way Gordon Brown presented it yesterday, there would either be a majority Labour government, or a Conservative-Liberal coalition. But what do the Liberal Democrats think? What are the chances of a Labour-Liberal coalition? Or maybe Gordon and David will band together with the words "screw you, Nick", and create a compromise that the whole country hates? Who knows.
Back to the debate: what influence does it have on people? Our friends at the BBC, in a desperate attempt to find out something and put it on television, decided to run some tests on “a specially selected group of undecided voters” by sticking them into a studio and letting them push buttons while watching the debate on the telly. Okay, makes sense. What they found out, or what they said yesterday, is this: “They don't like it when they're having a go at each other.” Let me repeat that for you: “They don't like it when they're having a go at each other.” To put this a bit more bluntly: The public doesn't like the so-called debate being a debate. This is quite a big fish to swallow. I myself was delighted to see some debating. The BBC analyst was delighted to see some debating. @spwhitton was delighted to see some debating. That's the way politics work. The part of the electorate the BBC runs its tests on, however, doesn't like politics: they prefer Nick Clegg's “Let's all have a beer and work this out” approach.
Whoever wins this, I just hope they don't do anything really stupid, like pretty much everything I heard David Cameron proposing.