The United States and the United Kingdom have long enjoyed close cultural ties. Top-rated television shows such as “American Idol” and the iconic “All In The Family” were based on British programs. The Brits took American rock-and-roll and blues music, put their unique stamp on it, and returned it in the form of some of the most beautiful and melodic rock music ever recorded.
Now Great Britain has taken another page from America. For the first time, the three major candidates for prime minister are squaring off in three debates before the general election. Once Britain starts down this path, it is almost for certain the nation will continue holding debates during every general election campaign season. But is this a good idea?
In 1960, the U.S. held its first presidential debates. The people at home who watched the first debate on television thought John Kennedy, the Democratic candidate, won the debate, while those who only heard the debate on radio thought that Republican Richard Nixon won handily. Those watching the debate saw that Nixon looked nervous, was sweating and had a five-o’clock shadow. Meanwhile Kennedy looked refreshed and relaxed. This debate may have swung the election, and it was more about style and appearance than substance.
Britain is now experiencing this same style over substance. In polling taken after the first debate, the British public chose Nick Clegg, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, as the clear winner. One of the reasons given was that Clegg did a good job of looking directly into the camera and speaking to the television audience. Another reason thought to help Clegg was that he is much more telegenic than Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who leads the Labour Party. The Liberal Democrats, usually also-rans to Labour and the Conservatives, are now genuine contenders. And the reason they are so competitive is the new debates.
Clegg has stated he is non-religious. That would be a nonstarter in America. An atheist could not be a major candidate for president. But his other qualities-running as an outsider and as a camera-ready, charismatic personality-would play well in the U.S.
With the advent of debates Britain may find it is adopting one of the worst features of American politics. In the Unites States the people with the sharpest minds are often denied a chance to run for office because they don’t look like they come out of central casting. The most brilliant and knowledgeable folks are frequently sidelined while the shallowest people with the brightest smiles and a gift for glibness are often elevated.
There is no stopping progress. The televised debate has arrived in Britain and will doubtlessly be there to stay. In determining who wins the debate, style points matter much more than demonstrated competence and ability. Over the next few election cycles, will the British people figure out that the work horse is often a better bet than the show horse?