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Coffee House From the archive

Thank goodness we only have to watch one TV debate

22 March 2015

4:08 PM

22 March 2015

4:08 PM

The treasurer of one of Manchester’s Conservative clubs is a lifelong Labour voter who votes only as a mark of respect for his father, who always voted Labour. He’s one of the few club regulars we met who bothers to vote, but he never watches the news and takes pride in knowing nothing about politics. I was in Manchester looking for disaffected voters with the World Service’s political correspondent Rob Watson; Manchester Central had the lowest turnout at the last election. We talked to a lot of people who had a similar attitude – ‘I’d rather be a hypocrite than powerless’, said one man in Wetherspoon’s. It’s a bit like doing jury service with earplugs in, but the consensus is that disengagement is never the voters’ fault.

It’s all a bit unfair, and perhaps politicians should defend themselves a bit more robustly. As it is their craven appearances on television tend to put more people off. When television first became a force in politics, Charles Curran was relieved by the public’s lack of interest. In America, the two main parties spent months stage-managing their party conventions for the benefit of TV audiences:

Rather than watch the conventions, large numbers of viewers switched their sets to other channels—even though these had nothing more exciting to offer than old films…This viewers’ strike carries a moral for our own party machines. It is the habit of politicians to assume that the mass public is just as interested in their rivalries as they themselves are. But this assumption is becoming less and less true in Great Britain. All the signs show that large numbers of men and women in this country are losing interest in public affairs; the torpor of the party organisations, the patterns of the popular press, the apathetic indifference of trade union branch members are among the symptoms. Politics is becoming a minority taste. If the party machines were to thrust themselves on the TV screens here, I believe they would provoke exactly the same exasperated revulsion that has just been displayed in the United States. For we have come almost to the end of the period in which the British masses could be passionately stirred by political differences.

Just when politicians seized on a transformative marketing tool, he said, the public became much less gullible:

[There is no] widespread belief that the disputes of politicians are particularly important to the individual voter. Instead of belief there is a spreading scepticism. This refusal to take politicians and their promises too seriously is the ultimate safeguard of democracy. I am glad to see it on the other side of the Atlantic as well. The Americans who switched off their TV sets during the party conventions, who preferred I Love Lucy to ‘I Like Ike,’ may receive the shocked reproaches of politicians. But I believe they deserve the thanks of everybody who is interested in maintaining democracy.


In 1964, J.W.M. Thompson also cautioned against taking politics on television too seriously:

Mr, Sidney Bernstein, who is an eloquent opponent of television’s present restrictions, nevertheless pronounces: ‘It would be improper, and almost certainly futile, to try to turn politics into entertainment.’ What are politicians up to all the time? The Shorter Oxford definition of ‘entertainment’ is ‘the action of occupying attention agreeably; that which affords interest or amusement.’ I have never known a politician in search of votes to disdain such an activity. 

So far as television viewers are concerned, what appears on their screens had better be in some way entertaining or it will not stay on their screens for long. People will hardly adopt a completely new attitude to the Box merely because the Great Seal has been affixed to a proclamation dissolving Parliament. And it is clear enough from the party political programmes that the politicians know this. But Mr. Bernstein evidently meant that it would be wrong for the television people to try to turn politics into a branch of show business: and, of course, he is right. He was arguing for a greater ‘serious’ participation in the election by television. This is a laudable demand, but it is very easy to overlook the hazards and limitations. A ‘confrontation’ between Sir Alec [Douglas-Home] and Harold Wilson sounds serious enough. But it might leave the viewers awarding a win to Mr. Wilson on the grounds of his celebrated memory for figures —what a panel-game participant! — or his quickness on the verbal draw. 

Or it might bring about a points win for Sir Alec because people thought his patrician light-heartedness more agreeable than his opponent’s poker-faced style. Either way it would be more of an ‘entertainment’ verdict than a political one. It would be essentially irrelevant. Television, more than any other medium, emphasises the trifling personal detail, the unimportant mannerism, all the bits of ‘personality’ that get between what a man is saying and the audience he is trying to reach.

Is the election really about whether Mr. Grimond can recall the cost of abolishing prescription charges, or anything of that sort? It ought to be about what the parties would do in office—not what their spokesmen can be pushed or lured into doing and saying in the heat and strain of a television studio.

All this came to pass in 2010, when everyone started falling over themselves to agree with Nick. It’s a relief that there will only be one full TV debate this time round. The entire 2010 election campaign was swamped by the heat and light of the debates, and Rod Liddle found it all very depressing.

The elevation of Clegg, you would hope, marks the apogee of the cretinisation of the British electorate, in which the public debate is now pitched at a slightly lower level than that implied in the sorts of questions I used to be asked by my two sons: ‘Dad, what would win in a fight between a tiger and a shark? What would win in a fight between a table and a desk?’ It cannot surely drop lower than this, can it? Clegg’s sole pitch, the only thing which scored him points — ‘at least I’m not them’ — was, nonetheless both accurate and had force. It would have had no less force if it had been issued by a gently cooling bowl of oxtail soup on a plinth, either, and would undoubtedly have contained more substance.

What do they stand for, then? You might argue that it doesn’t matter, because it clearly doesn’t matter to those people who viewed last week’s debate as they watch The X Factor, except without the spite, and have decided that, apropos nothing, Nick is the one for them…I suppose none of this is Nick Clegg’s fault, even if prior to that first prime ministerial debate he appeared to be the least effective leader of our third party since Clement Edward Davies. And there is a certain agreeably rough justice on Brown and, particularly, Cameron in having the ground whipped from beneath their feet in such a peremptory manner. If you spend all your energy targeting a tiny tranche of the population whom you consider to be crucial swing voters, while ignoring entirely your core support, then this is the very least you might expect to happen. But it is not a good thing, surely, to have our general elections conducted on the same terms, and with an identical level of intellectual consideration, as an early round of Pop Idol.


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