Two views of the economics debate

by Henry on April 30, 2010

“Hendrik Hertzberg”:http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/hendrikhertzberg/2010/04/debate-british-style.html on the Brown-Cameron-Clegg faceoff yesterday.

bq. Mainly, though, I was struck by how superior this event was to its typical American counterpart, in a number of ways:

* The crispness and clarity of the debaters.

* The businesslike, non-preening moderator, David Dimbleby—the Brits, it seems, still have a Cronkite.

* The audience, which listened attentively and respected what I assume was a request to refrain from applauding or hooting or otherwise behaving like a mob or a claque.

* The fact that neither Cameron nor Clegg went medieval on Brown for his ridiculous “bigot” gaffe—not that doing so would have benefitted them, given British manners.

* The near-total lack of obviously rehearsed zingers. (Emphasis on obviously.)

* The fact that none of the candidates appeared to be a sociopath, a delusionary, a demagogue, or a serious neurotic. They all seem to be relatively decent people.

“Patrick Dunleavy”:http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/election/?p=1882

bq. The dominant feeling was just how bad the House of Commons is as a preparation for government leadership. Parliament teaches MPs to emote, not to reason very well, not to argue, but just to have feelings and find ways of projecting this to others – in short to emote. The acme of a good Commons performance is to emit the maximum number of units of emotion (let’s call them emoticons for short) in any given time period. In the final Prime Ministerial debate David Cameron solely concentrated, and Nick Clegg mainly concentrated, on maximizing the number of emoticons they emitted. You kind of lost count of the number of time they said “What I think is that…”, with a kind of verbal double-bold, large font sign around the I. It doesn’t really matter in the Commons if you are apparently solipsistic, you see – a level of self-absorption that might look a bit mental in other occupations is par for the course amongst top politicians. Nor does it matter what on earth the basis of your emotion or feeling is, just to underscore that you really do feel it. David Cameron’s advocacy of ‘Time for an (unspecific) change’ made the overall vagueness and lack of any intellectual or factual or evidential grounding to what he said really rather starkly apparent. David, it seems, wants what we all want, only he really wants it. When Brown or Clegg pressed him for anything detailed by way of an answer, a kind of ‘disbelief face’ crept over him – his expression said that he just could not believe that a responsible politician could behave in such a bad taste way in public.

I don’t know which of them is right or wrong (I only watched about 2 minutes of the debate myself, having a paper to write on urgent deadline), but found the dissonance interesting. Also Hertzberg’s suggestion that we would be much better off taking a lesson from a Swedish debate that he once saw, where the leaders had briefers behind them with stacks of paper, whom they could mutter to in order to get information as needs be (a sort of open book exam). Also, “this bit from Charlie Brooker”:http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/apr/29/tv-debate-songs-of-praise-charlie-brooker (via Ian McDonald).

bq. According to some polls, Cameron won, or at the very least tied with Clegg. Which is odd, because to my biased eyes, he looked hilariously worried whenever the others were talking. He often wore a face like the Fat Controller trying to wee through a Hula Hoop without splashing the sides, in fact. Perhaps that’s just the expression he pulls when he’s concentrating, in which case it’s fair to say he’d be the first prime minister in history who could look inadvertently funny while pushing the nuclear button.

American readers may wish to be informed that the “Hula Hoop” in question isn’t “this”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hula_hoop but “this”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hula_Hoops.

{ 28 comments }

1

Ben Alpers 04.30.10 at 4:22 pm

The British seem to see these debates as “American style,” while we Americans cannot help but seeing them as very, very British.

I’m always struck by the fact that British politics often seem more polite and issue-focused on the hustings (as they say) than U.S. politicians are, while debate in Commons is much rougher, more personal, and snarkier than it is in the House or the Senate.

2

Steve 04.30.10 at 4:48 pm

There’s a lot of ‘grass is always greener’ about the discussion. My mother told me the other day how she’d heard a radio programme with an American on, ‘and he was saying how good our debates were‘, which was said in a tone of total amazement, as if the Queen had offered to swap places with her for a week.

I’ve enjoyed the American debates I’ve seen, because I appreciate the forthrightness about what is, after all, the business of conviction.

3

ejh 04.30.10 at 5:01 pm

The British seem to see these debates as “American style,” while we Americans cannot help but seeing them as very, very British.

They can’t be that British, because they’re the first time a General Election camapign has had them.

I’m pretty sceptical about them, because – as nobody else seems to be saying – they reinforce the view of a political party as consisting almost entirely of its leader. This is plainly OK if you’re having a Presidential Election, but it’s not supposed to be a presidential system. You’re not choosing from Clegg/Cameron/Brown, you’re voting in constituencies and choosing between parties’ candidates.

4

Hidari 04.30.10 at 5:30 pm

‘I’m pretty sceptical about them, because – as nobody else seems to be saying – they reinforce the view of a political party as consisting almost entirely of its leader. This is plainly OK if you’re having a Presidential Election, but it’s not supposed to be a presidential system. You’re not choosing from Clegg/Cameron/Brown, you’re voting in constituencies and choosing between parties’ candidates.’

Yes that’s the problem with them. And it’s worrying that they were taken over from the American system, because one of the many, many, many problems with American ‘democracy’ is that the President has far too much power: Americans (well, the ones that manage to register) are actually voting for a kind of elected dictator, although it took George W. Bush to really follow this logic through to its logical conclusion.

5

Keith 04.30.10 at 5:32 pm

There was no random questions about creationism, no macho preening and no veiled accusations that one of the speakers was a commie. In short, nothing like an American-style Debate. Perhaps if they had let some random MP from Northern Ireland get up there and yammer about her babies and how the fact that she can see Russia from her front yard makes her an authority on nuclear treaties, then you might have a possible show.

We Americans own theatrically vapid political debates.

6

Cryptic Ned 04.30.10 at 6:23 pm

I’ve enjoyed the American debates I’ve seen, because I appreciate the forthrightness about what is, after all, the business of conviction.

What does this mean exactly?

And it’s worrying that they were taken over from the American system, because one of the many, many, many problems with American ‘democracy’ is that the President has far too much power: Americans (well, the ones that manage to register) are actually voting for a kind of elected dictator, although it took George W. Bush to really follow this logic through to its logical conclusion.

A dictator who, however, has a lot less power than the British Prime Minister, in that he has no power over the legislature.

7

Andrew 04.30.10 at 6:28 pm

Brittish politics are really very polite. I haven’t heard any rude words from their sides. I have no clue about American politics!

8

Mitchell Rowe 04.30.10 at 6:37 pm

ejh:
I am not as familiar with the British politics as I would like to be but in the very similar Canadian system the independence of individual MPs is more theoretical than actual. They almost always vote as their party (i.e. leader) tells them. Which in all honesty is what I prefer.

9

Mitchell Rowe 04.30.10 at 6:39 pm

4:
The American President actually is actually much less powerful then the Westminster style Prime Minister. A PM with a strong majority is actually almost a dictator in between elections.

10

Ben Alpers 04.30.10 at 7:11 pm

They can’t be that British, because they’re the first time a General Election camapign has had them.

The only thing really new–and sort of American–here is the format, right?

The parties, electoral system, length of campaign, political culture, media, and of course candidates themselves are 100% British.

As for the emphasis on the PM candidate, I’d agree with what others have said about PMs with majorities being much more powerful figures than US presidents (controlling, of course, for the relative power of the US and the UK).

And I’d add that as far back as 1987 (when I happened to be in Britain during their general election campaign), the election campaign was overwhelmingly dominated by the personality of Mrs. Thatcher.

Yes, a party is being elected (though as an individual one is voting not for a party but for a single MP using FPTP). And, yes, the existence of cabinets and shadow cabinets mean that voters have a broader sense of who might be in power than simply the PM (and, on the other hand, with the possibility of a hung parliament, have in effect less of a sense of who they might be putting into power).

But I’m not really sure how these differences argue against a debate among the leaders of the major parties.

11

alwsdad 04.30.10 at 7:27 pm

“…none of the candidates appeared to be a sociopath, a delusionary, a demagogue, or a serious neurotic.”
Fine, rub it in why dontcha?

12

Christopher Phelps 04.30.10 at 7:29 pm

Would this be the first time in the postwar period, at least, that the Guardian did anything other than support Labour?

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/apr/30/the-liberal-moment-has-come

13

Harry 04.30.10 at 7:45 pm

1983. And maybe 1987 (can’t remember).

14

Hidari 04.30.10 at 8:04 pm

‘A dictator who, however, has a lot less power than the British Prime Minister, in that he has no power over the legislature.’

Ha!

‘Let’s just look at one of those documents (.pdf) — entitled “Authority for Use of Military Force to Combat Terrorist Activities Within the U.S.” It was sent to (and requested by) Defense Department General Counsel William J. Haynes and authored by Assistant Attorney General John Yoo and DOJ Special Counsel Robert Delahunty. But it’s not a “Yoo memo.” Rather, it was the official and formal position of the U.S. Government — at least of the omnipotent Executive Branch — from the time it was issued until just several months George Bush before left office (October, 2008), when OLC Chief Stephen Bradbury abruptly issued a memo withdrawing, denouncing and repudiating both its reasoning and conclusions.

The essence of this document was to declare that George Bush had the authority (a) to deploy the U.S. military inside the U.S., (b) directed at foreign nationals and U.S. citizens alike; (c) unconstrained by any Constitutional limits, including those of the First, Fourth and Fifth Amendments. It was nothing less than an explicit decree that, when it comes to Presidential power, the Bill of Rights was suspended, even on U.S. soil and as applied to U.S. citizens. And it wasn’t only a decree that existed in theory; this secret proclamation that the Fourth Amendment was inapplicable to what the document calls “domestic military operations” was, among other things, the basis on which Bush ordered the NSA, an arm of the U.S. military, to turn inwards and begin spying — in secret and with no oversight — on the electronic communications (telephone calls and emails) of U.S. citizens on U.S. soil.’

http://www.salon.com/news/opinion/glenn_greenwald/2009/03/03/yoo/index.html

15

Cryptic Ned 04.30.10 at 8:13 pm

What, the British Prime Minister can’t do that?

16

Hidari 04.30.10 at 8:39 pm

‘What, the British Prime Minister can’t do that?’

Actually nowadays he probably could. But back in the day, with the principle of Primus inter pares, there were definite limits on his (sic) power. This principle has been eroded recently, by Blair in particular (no surprise there) as we have moved to a more ‘American’ (i.e. undemocratic) system.

17

Zamfir 04.30.10 at 8:40 pm

Hidari, for some weird reason people outside of the US are rarely shocked by violations of the sacred Constitution. It’s almost as if they have a different constitution, or none at all!

18

Steve 05.01.10 at 1:11 am

What does this mean exactly?

I guess I was, a bit inarticulately, trying to make an aesthetic point. The House of Commons provides poor training in speaking, for the reasons Dunleavy points out in the post. There’s not very much time spent trying to persuade people, and a lot of time (particularly for backbenchers) spent asking questions they’ve been fed. Even Prime Minister’s Question Time is more of a slanging match than an honest attempt to persuade people of the rightness of the speakers position.

That’s why American debates seem better to me. The candidates make far more speeches, and practice speaking to many small crowds on the stump. British parliamentarians do too, but to nowhere near the same extent. Consequently, far too much of the debates here has been about answering the question the candidate wishes was asked (helped by stupid rules that prevent the chair from challenging a non-answer), not the ones that actually were asked.

I just feel that you can’t expect vastly reasoned debate at these things, and if you’re watching them for rhetoric, American candidates are just better at it (with the obvious exception of Mr Bush).

19

Moby Hick 05.01.10 at 2:13 am

He often wore a face like the Fat Controller trying to wee through a Hula Hoop without splashing the sides, in fact.

I’d heard that the British episodes were better, but I had no idea how much better.

20

TheSophist 05.01.10 at 2:50 am

This, via Alex Massie, is Clegg on Beckett:

“Every time I go back to Beckett he seems more subversive, not less; his works make me feel more uncomfortable than they did before.”

The mind boggles, reels, and is completely unable even to begin to comprehend what would happen if an American Presidential candidate were to utter such lines…

21

astrongmaybe 05.01.10 at 7:50 am

These debates pose a very tricky problem for the Lib Dems the way things are shaping up. On the one hand, the fact of the debates seems to have lifted the Lib Dems, made a hung parliament more likely, and opened the way for all sorts of hung parliament scenarios with their jockeying and horsetrading and stabbings in the back. But on the other hand, by copperfastening presidentiality into the system, it makes it extremely difficult to imagine a prime minister who was NOT one of those on the TV debates.

So this really limits Clegg’s hand for a scenario where the Tories fall fairly far short of a majority: even if he wanted to (a big if, granted), it would be hard for him to make a coalition or a deal with Labour even if they did shaft Brown, precisely because Brown was the Labour “presidential candidate.” In the TV Debate Political Era, it would be hard to just pop Alan Johnson, say, into place as a Lab-Lib PM.

22

conchis 05.01.10 at 12:31 pm

it makes it extremely difficult to imagine a prime minister who was NOT one of those on the TV debates

I don’t buy this at all. It’s not as if the prospect of allying with a non-Brown-led Labour party hasn’t been fairly openly discussed. Indeed, if Labour come 3rd in the vote share, the perceived rejection of Brown-as-president would provide an ostensibly compelling reason to ditch him as PM, without necessarily abandoning Labour.

Admittedly, a Lib Dem alliance with a non-Cameron-led Conservative party doesn’t seem very likely. But that has very little to do with the “presidential” nature of the debates.

23

James Conran 05.01.10 at 6:45 pm

“In the TV Debate Political Era, it would be hard to just pop Alan Johnson, say, into place as a Lab-Lib PM.”

I don’t foresee a groundswell of opinion demanding Gordon Brown’s restoration in such a scenario.

24

piglet 05.01.10 at 9:58 pm

“The candidates make far more speeches, and practice speaking to many small crowds on the stump.”

That is true, but what does that have to do with debate? You seemed to be talking about “American debates”, not stump speeches, and while I have no direct knowledge of the British debates, I can certainly testify that there in US election campaigns, there are no debates period. What they call presidential debates usually doesn’t involve anything resembling an actual exchange between debaters. I never expected to be saying this, with the grass always being greener elsewhere and such, but I actually miss the German debates. Can you imagine this, representatives (not always the leading candidate) of four or five political parties sitting at a table and actually talking to each other, responding, contradicting, sometimes getting into a heated exchange, and the moderator not charged with preventing it from happening? It seemed so normal and banal, now I almost get nostalgic when I think of it.

25

Phil 05.01.10 at 10:39 pm

I remember my father telling me that the Graun was a Liberal paper, and thinking what a shame it was that Labour didn’t have a paper of their own (apart from the Mirror); this would be mid-70s, long before the SDP (which Guardian writers supported in a big way). The Graun’s Labour period lasted about as long as the Times’s and only slightly longer than the Sun’s; it was Blair wot won them.

26

harry b 05.02.10 at 8:17 pm

That’s right — when I was growing up the Manchester Guardian and then the Guardian was a Lib, or possibly LibLab paper, until the SDP emerged, when one of its leading columnists, Polly Toynbee, was the most prominent of a large number of Guardian journalists who were v. supportive.

27

Pete 05.04.10 at 12:34 pm

“The essence of this document was to declare that George Bush had the authority (a) to deploy the U.S. military inside the U.S., (b) directed at foreign nationals and U.S. citizens alike; (c) unconstrained by any Constitutional limits, including those of the First, Fourth and Fifth Amendments. It was nothing less than an explicit decree that, when it comes to Presidential power, the Bill of Rights was suspended, even on U.S. soil and as applied to U.S. citizens”

“What, the British Prime Minister can’t do that?”

Well, historically the UK military has been deployed in NI (part of the UK) for years now. And the intelligence services could decide not only to bug domestic dissidents but also the Prime Minister himself (Harold Wilson), on pretty much their own initiative and without legal repercussions.

28

belle le triste 05.04.10 at 12:47 pm

@27: that last sentence does suggest more a de facto limit on the UK PM’s powers than a de jure expansion…

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