Sunday, 18 April 2010

All talk; no real debate.

Did the earth move for you last Thursday, during the history making television debate between the leaders of the three main political parties; it didn’t budge so much as an inch for me.

The whole thing with its over rehearsed sound bites and ludicrous rules that prevented the audience from clapping, groaning or giving any sign they hadn’t slipped into a coma was a huge disappointment. It told us, the voting public, nothing we didn’t already know about the three privileged men standing on the stage.

Gordon Brown is awkward and more often than not rather cross, how dare anyone doubt that he and he alone saved the world in the autumn of 2008. His inability to communicate with his fellow debaters demonstrated all you need to know about his inability to communicate with the wider electorate.

David Cameron gave a solid, rather presidential, performance, he was a little too sure of himself and left viewers with the distinct impression that he is only pretending to understand how ‘ordinary’ people live. While he did less well than many people expected him to Cameron has at least kept the momentum of his campaign going, something at which the Labour Party have so far failed miserably.

If anyone emerged as the ‘winner’ of the debate it was Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg, mostly because he came across as a, comparatively, normal human being. As a result his approval ratings have soared and at least one newspaper has claimed that he is now more popular than Winston Churchill; pay dirt for the leader of a party that is all too often pushed to the sidelines. Little of this new found popularity will translate into seats won on May 6th due to the cold mathematics of the electoral system, but it might strengthen his hand in the negotiations surrounding a hung parliament.

The awkward question waiting to be asked is did the media circus surrounding the debate improve public understanding of and engagement with the political process? Somehow I doubt it. Part of the problem was the awful way the debates were staged, the set looked like it had been borrowed from a third rate daytime quiz show and the camera work was at best amateurish and at worst downright incompetent. The main problem though is that due to the dire state of current affairs programming on British television the debates aren’t, as those in the US always are, backed up by the candidates being subjected to regular in depth interviews by respected journalists, rather than soft focus stuff sandwiched between people plugging books and films done by someone who used to be a journalist until they found out that talking bilge on the box pays far better.

The debates, of course, had to compete this week with a story that pushed the election off the front pages, by which I mean the grounding of every plane in Europe by the eruption of an Icelandic volcano with a name even the locals can’t pronounce.

It is a curious, and curiously satisfying, experience to be able to go outside and look up into a sky totally free of the vapour trails left by jet planes. All of a sudden we are in a world of mail boats and birdsong where the humble train is no longer the Cinderella of the transport world. If things go on like this for much longer the only way to travel across Europe will be on board the Blue Train or the Orient Express, good news, I suppose, for spinsters who write Golden Age detective novels.

We have, for the moment at least, been spared the thoughts of the three men who would be prime minister on the power of a volcano with a name that looks like a losing hand at scrabble when written down to bring a whole continent grinding to a halt. Perhaps they’ve been embarrassed into silence by the realization that when it comes to making headlines Mother Nature always steals the show.