A Historic Event: Britain’s First Televised Campaign Debate

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From Catherine Mayer, TIME’s London Bureau Chief:

On one topic at least there was a perfect consensus when the leaders of Britain’s three largest political parties faced each other in a 90-minute televised debate this evening, ahead of elections on May 6. This was the first ever such contest, and everyone – the protagonists Prime Minister Gordon Brown, the Conservatives’ David Cameron and the Liberal Democrats’ Nick Clegg; the moderator, a veteran anchor called Alastair Stewart; the studio audience; even the continuity announcers – agreed on one thing: it was a historic event.

America has had presidential debates for half a century. British politicians have always found reasons to sidestep such clashes. But this time, it looked like a win-win-win situation for the three parties. Parties pay for campaigns and TV debates suddenly looked like free advertising to the incumbent – and impecunious – Labour government. The Conservatives, ahead in the polls, but not by enough to be sure of an outright majority, thought the debates – they’ve agreed to three in total – might finally push them over the finishing line. And for the Liberal Democrats, a third party often ignored by the media, this meant an unprecedented platform. As Stewart said, at least once, it was indeed “a historic moment in television and political history.”

The problem with history in the making is that it’s often deadly dull to watch. The debate format, hemmed in by 76 rules, killed much of the drama in a program the broadcaster ITV had relentlessly touted as exactly that, PRIME TIME DRAMA. Westminster watchers could sense the animosity flowing between Brown and Cameron, who simply can’t abide each other. For the wider public, it was an opportunity to judge which politician could best deliver a soundbite or a pre-prepared joke. Armando Iannucci, author of a brilliant satirical TV comedy series set in Westminster, The Thick of It, encapsulated in a tweet the experience of watching the Prime Minister deliver gags. “You can see a little man performing a cartwheel in each of Gordon Brown’s eyes whenever he tells a joke,” wrote @AIannucci.

The first question, appropriately from a toxicologist, was about immigration. Further topics debated were education, the national health system, old age care, defense spending and how to cut Britain’s enormous budget deficit without imperiling the recovery. Since the rules prevented clapping, or any other sign of approbation or disapproval from the audience, it was hard to tell if they were sitting in admiring silence or sleeping. On Twitter, people watching the debate on the telly complained that they’d expected an advertising break (ITV is a commercial channel) and they variously yearned publicly for cups of tea, cigarettes or time to nip to the toilet.

It was left to ITV together with the pollsters ComRes to achieve another historic first, by polling 4023 voters immediately after the debate ended to find out who had actually won. The result, unlike recent opinion polls, was decisive. The Liberal Democrats’ Clegg won by 43 % compared to Cameron’s 26 % and Brown’s 20%.

A strong showing from the Liberal Democrats could leave them holding the balance of power on May 7 so tonight’s result chimes with an odd result that keeps cropping up in surveys of the public mood. With anger at politicians running high after last year’s revelations about abuses of the Westminster expenses system, large numbers of Britons say they hope that the elections will fail to give any of the parties an overall majority. (Or, as the joke goes, Britons prefer a hung parliament: they’d prefer them hung.)

As the leaders return to the campaign trail, their challenge is to shift that national mood into something more positive. But as they left the television studio in Manchester, a more immediate problem confronted them. A blanket of volcanic ash spewed from an eruption in faraway Iceland has closed every airport in Britain. Sometimes historic events really are dramatic.