British candidates try an American-style TV debate

The main candidates in the most hotly contested prime minister's race in generations engage each other in this nation's first ever U.S.-style television debate. In this clip the candidates debate crime in the U.K.
By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 16, 2010

A mere half-century after America's first televised national debates, England finally had one of her own. It took the dear old Motherland a while to catch up, but now it's our turn -- because the debate that aired Thursday on England's ITV seemed much stronger on substance and less dependent on gimmickry than ours do.

Then again, we've had 50 years for the ritual to deteriorate and become silly, and they're just getting started. Relayed live to U.S. viewers thanks to C-SPAN3 as part of C-SPAN's continuing coverage of Britain's parliamentary elections (to be held May 6), the debate was very short on rehearsed zingers ("you're no Jack Kennedy") and cutesy catchphrases ("Where's the beef?") and packed solid with relevant facts, cogent arguments and deftly turned phrases.

But the very qualities that made the British debate seem more dignified and civilized were likely to make it seem stuffy and strait-laced to many American viewers.

Three candidates met for 90 minutes of colloquy: Prime Minister Gordon Brown, burly old bear of the Labor Party; David Cameron of the opposing Conservatives; and upstart Nick Clegg of the Liberal Democrats, a relatively new minority party largely ignored by the other two candidates.

Clegg seemed the most telegenic, however, and though he did have a rehearsed phrase or two -- as when he charged that British prisons have become "overcrowded colleges of crime" (just like our fine American prisons!) -- he seemed mostly to have an impressive command of the issues.

They all had impressive command of the language, but then, they're British. They're from the land where the spoken word is a hallowed thing second only to the written one. Brown and Cameron didn't bother much with assailing Clegg, and he was able to attack them as dowdy old establishmentarians while describing himself as representing something new and different. "The more they attack each other," he said of Brown and Cameron, "the more they sound the same."

Questions came from selected members of the audience, most of whom read them off cards, and therefore completely lacked spontaneity. Partly because the first one ate up 17 minutes, only eight questions made it onto the final show. Production was slick, however; the questioners were able to remain in their seats and all had microphones so that no time was wasted rounding them up or getting mikes to them.

Attire was strictly shiny shoes and dark suits. Barack Obama's preference for solid pastel ties has apparently been internationally influential -- Brown wore a color that looked like pink but could've been maroon, and Clegg wore a solid yellow that could've been gold -- while the conservative Cameron seemed to be following in the tradition of George W. Bush's favorite, baby blue.

Though politics there and here have many differences, of course, Cameron's brand of conservatism did sound awfully familiar. He kept saying "can't afford it" in response to proposals for social improvement and, not taking any chances at understating it, praised the military as "brilliant, brilliant, brilliant people." But all three praised the men and women in uniform, sounding quite American as they did so.

Cameron looked a bit like MSNBC early bird Joe Scarborough ("Morning Joe"), at least to the extent of having an eggplant nose.

And if Americans have had presidential debates for 50 years, the British have had -- and been complaining about --"the National Health" since 1948. Questions about the National Health Service contained details that could well give the jitters to Americans already worried about recently approved health-care reform. Brown vowed that henceforth, all necessary operations would be performed within 18 weeks of diagnosis, which didn't sound very speedy and made one wonder how long the wait is now.

Among the reforms on which all agreed was that of giving the "carer" (here, "caregiver") who looks after an elderly patient a full week off every year -- Brown called it "respite," pronounced "re-spite." How about that? A whole week! The problem of what do about the elderly, and protecting them from having to sell their homes to pay for the medical care they need late in life, is so daunting, said Clegg, that he thought all three candidates should confer on the problem because "none of us has the answer."

Conditions in England and the United States are clearly similar in many areas -- talk of a continuing recession and struggling economy and "greedy banks" hoarding money; Clegg's denunciation of "double millionaires" who receive lavish tax breaks from the government while the middle class suffers; problems in education and crime prevention; and so on.

Host, or "presenter," for the broadcast was the very very British Alastair Stewart, who never said "thank you" when he could say "thank you very much indeed." They love "indeed" over there; also "proper" as in "a proper British school" or "a proper cup of tea" or a proper anything, really.

But then this was, clearly and engagingly -- considering how unfamiliar many of the names and faces and references were -- a very proper debate. Welcome to the club, kids.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company