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The Silent Debate

Gordon Brown can no longer resist calls for a Leaders’ Debate in advance of the UK General Election, writes Gavan Reilly.

As Gordon Brown’s Labour government watches the clock run down on its five-year term, and the UK slowly creeps towards a General Election, the world will turn its eye to the centre of the old Empire and once again marvel at the archetypal democracy mastered by Britain and bequeathed to the wider world.

The political system in the vast majority of British democracies, including Ireland, is modelled on the ‘Westminster system’, a simple model in which the people elect members of parties, and the parliamentarians elected the prime minister.

Yet, oddly, the prototype Westminster system – Westminster itself – has never, until now, offered the public what in other countries is considered to be an intrinsic and resolute part of the political calendar: the Leaders’ Debate.

Until now, there has been no formal debate between the leaders of the Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties, and no opportunity for the UK’s 27 million active voters to listen to the three Prime Ministers-in-waiting debate the issues of the day before deciding who they want as their head of government.

GORDON BROWNTelevised debates between the leaders of the main parties are nothing new. John F. Kennedy outpolled Richard Nixon by a mere 112,000 votes in their 1960 presidential election, with the victory attributed to Kennedy’s smart appearance in the country’s first TV debate, contrasting with Nixon’s groggy and haggard visage.

Indeed, countless elections around the world have been swung by perceived victories in such debates since – including Bertie Ahern, whose victory in the 2007 General Election was widely attributed to his performance against Enda Kenny on the televised Prime Time debate.

In advance of the next general election, required to take place before May 2010, Sky News have sought to buck this tradition by creating an online petition asking Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Nick Clegg to face off in a televised three-way debate. The campaign has quickly gathered pace amongst the public and the media alike: over nine thousand people had signed the petition before it mysteriously vanished from the internet at the time of writing.

The notion of a debate has also attracted support from figures across the international political establishment. Quick to hop on the cause, ITV has also declared its intention to host such a debate, and Cameron and Clegg have publically stated their willingness to participate, leaving only Gordon Brown continuing to stonewall public demand to take part.

Brown’s silent refusal to take part is difficult to comprehend. With his party cruising for a dismal battering at the polling booth – latest polls suggest the Conservatives can expect a comfortable 96-seat majority after the election – and with his own personal approval at a wretched 19 per cent, it would seem that Brown would have nothing to lose by sparring with his successor-to-be David Cameron. Perhaps it would showcase some of the steel, grit and determination with which he was synonymous as Chancellor of the Exchequer.
Brown, in a strange parallel to Brian Cowen, has appeared shaken and uneasy in power since ascending from the finance brief two years ago, and would surely benefit from a chance to shake off the image of being asleep at the helm.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the relative culture shock of a TV debate has not met with universal support. Many voters have expressed disappointment that, having instigated the movement, Sky News – as part of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation media empire – would host, and supposedly politically skew, the debate.

Others feel that debates would cheapen the political environment and give opportunity for the party leaders to engage in sound-bite politics, leaving comments open to over-analysis and ultimately detracting from open debate. Labour supporters alike have jeered the plans, likely concerned at the prospect of a fatally poor performance from the PM.

Such concerns are tough to sympathise with. Few media outlets, with the only genuine exception of national broadcasters, can be trusted to have no political partisan whatsoever – and if channels did have a bias, such spin would already be evident in its current affairs coverage, countering notions that public debate would be exposed to novel levels of misconception. To credit such worries, no obvious reason exists for the BBC not to stage such debates, a step that would fully calm such fears beyond rebuttal, but this hardly redeems concerns that politics would descend into media-driven farce.

For the modern home of parliamentary democracy not to offer its voters a chance to hear their potential leaders debate the major issues of an election is a strange and counterproductive anomaly. The only overall impression one can be left with is that Gordon Brown, in resisting public demand to appear before the nation, is striving to resist the inevitable and abusing an inexplicable absence of open tradition in a nation that ought to know better.