If the general election is to go down in history it will not be through encouraging any prospects for the vital revolutionary, invigoratingly therapeutic society – but for the leaders of the tedious, outworn and discredited parties surprising everyone by agreeing to display their reactionary absurdity in a televised confrontation. That is, supposing the debates ever happen; there is likely to be some time before the election and a mass of obstacles to be negotiated before the leaders' agreement has any meaning. There is, to begin with, the likelihood that the idea sprang from their panic, which convinced them that they had nothing to lose. For Gordon Brown there is the fear that the exposure of New Labour's blundering chaos will lead to their practically disappearing come polling day. David Cameron will be anxious that his gamble on trying to replace his party's Thatcherite reputation as the Nasty Party with one for being Caring Conservatives may not come off in time. And Nick Clegg must be suffering anxiety about the fate of his pose as the real alternative way or running capitalism – with the unasked-for help of Vince Cable – and the effect of any failure on his ambition to make him the new brand of British politics. A crisis on any one of these could fatally undermine the debates.
Meanwhile it is not only TV soap addicts who wonder why viewing time should be allocated to the debates when there is already face-to-face confrontation in Prime Minister's Questions. Can there, it may be asked, be anything more, anything different, to be said about trying to tame and administer this strife-torn, repressive society? One response might be that anyone devoted to the ructions of Coronation Street would find much to divert them in the weekly posturing and screeching in the Commons. But witnessing at first hand the behaviour of our law-makers at their work may be encouraging them to, in more than one sense, switch off. Which would mean the wastage of all the meticulously detailed preparation being poured into the debates – the jockeying and the intrigue, the anguished rows about who will speak when, who will moderate, be in the audience, decide where everyone sits, winds up the discussion...it will be more than just a matter of assuaging some massive egos. Then there will be the analyses, with all parties claiming to have won the debate even if they lost the vote. A lot of this will revolve around the hope, by each participant, for the kind of seminal exchanges in debates between the candidates in previous US Presidential Elections which were widely supposed to have crucially affected the result.
Kennedy vs Nixon
The first example of this was in 1960, when Kennedy ran for the Democrats against Richard Nixon – both of them hardened, ruthless political operators with a suitably determined machine looking after them. In the first of four debates, watched by 80 million people, Nixon took part although he was still recovering after hospital treatment for an infected knee injury. His appearance – weary, sick and pale – was made worse by his refusal to wear the usual make-up, which drew attention to his facial stubble. He seemed shifty and hesitant so that Kennedy, whose image was rested, fresh and healthy, impressed the millions of voters who preferred leaders who looked like that.
The following debates were not so damaging to Nixon and in any case it was doubtful whether his sorry appearance had any crucial effect on the election because Kennedy won by the smallest of margins – 0.1 per cent of the vote – and even at that there was strong evidence of fraud in Texas – where Vice Presidential candidate Lyndon Johnson held sway – and Illinois where Mayor Richard Daley could always get the vote out by hook or by crook. In any case Nixon, stubble and all, eventually bounced back, winning the Presidency in 1968 and then, emphatically, in 1972 until his being sucked down into the Watergate affair exposed how shallow and saleable are what our leaders like to call their morals.
Carter vs Reagan
Another, less startling, example was in the election of 1980 when Ronald Reagan presented as a relaxed and fluent ex-film actor (albeit mainly in B movies) against the anguished born-again christian President Carter. Reagan took to the debates like – well, like any seasoned Hollywood star. The media loved it when he dismissed Carter's attack on his record of voting, as Governor of California, against Medicare and Social Security benefits, with the contemptuous phrase “There you go again!” Reagan ran away with the election, with nearly 10 per cent more than Carter of the popular vote. This was called the “Reagan Revolution”, which ran into the following election and to some extent carried George H.W. Bush into the White House in 1988.
The debates, in America and here, are intended to promote the idea that leaders are crucially significant and that workers should vote for them and not for what they and their parties represent, in denial of the real experience which points to the leaders' impotence in face of the inexorable demands of capitalism. So when the debates are staged here we cannot look forward to anything more constructive, nor even interesting, than the customary, tedious drone in feeble response to the system's persistent crises. It may be that some wretched participant will try to wriggle out of a particularly difficult question by imitating the Reagan approach – Brown satirising Cameron covering his ineptitude in assumed sincerity; or Cameron raising a laugh with Brown's memories of being brought up as a son of the manse; or both of them savaging Clegg's ambition to be treated as more than a querulous upstart. In doleful times it might get us chuckling, amid our contempt for the exhausted excuses which, even now, are probably being written into the script.