I have to be honest, I didn't like the idea. Retrospectively, I realise that I was aloof and thought that we, the British folk, were better than that. We respected politics and knew it was more important than a reality TV show. Politicians only debated in Parliament and educated on high-brow programmes such as Newsnight, Question Time, or the Today Programme on Radio 4. We voted for parties and policies, not for the personalities of politicians.
So, I didn't switch on in 2010 to see the first ever 'live' debate of the party leaders, I actively protested by going to the pub. What did I find when I got there? The television screen switched to the debate and the drinkers engrossed in the proceedings. Immediately, I took everything I had said back. Here was the first time in politics I had seen the outsider so clearly steal a march from the establishment. That evening, Nick Clegg bought politics back to the people.
He ensured a real political debate, forcing the other party leaders to stray away from the safe middle ground. The big loser over the three debates was Gordon Brown, who by common consensus, did not deliver in the debates, yet, as the incumbent Prime Minister, he had the most at stake. Although Clegg stood out, the real winner was politics. With audiences peaking at around 9.3 million viewers, these debates had sparked public interest in a way no one could have ever anticipated.
Once again, I got it wrong. After the success of 2010, I presumed these debates would become a fixture on the general election landscape. Yet in 2015, it seemed most of the debates were not focussed on politics, but rather whether the debates themselves were actually going to happen. Finally, we got our one big debate, but it was on a broader scale, involving the leaders of the seven British parties. Less decisive than the 2010 debates, but still watched by over 7 million, with a poll showing 38% of people were influenced in their voting decisions. Clearly, the live debate format was a chance for the electorate to see their potential leaders raw and uncut, debating the issues that will drive voting intentions.
Yet, here we are.
Of course, the big news is the snap general election and what this means for politics, the economy, Brexit and many other issues. Watching Theresa May announce the general election, it was commonly accepted that this was a politician playing the odds to strengthen her own (and her party's) position in Government. This short-term opportunity outweighed any previous pronouncements about snap elections, and demonstrated, once again, that previous statements are in no way relevant to decisions made in the moment of politics.
However, to me, the biggest loser is the general public. Alongside the election announcement, Theresa May proclaimed that she will not be taking part in any debates and, interestingly, this seems to have been taken as verbatim. But, there is no denying that these debates massively affected the results of previous elections and perhaps more saliently, they encouraged a process of public education on the current political system and policies of the day.
It was refreshing and uplifting to watch experts pit their wits, beliefs and knowledge against each other, knowing that the downside was potentially greater than the upside. Still, I feel there was a respect for the public that they should be given this opportunity to listen to the leaders, so they could make the best decision in their voting. In my eyes, it elevated politicians back up to a place where they valued democracy at the forefront of their thinking, rather than at the whim of their own or their party's ascendancy to govern.
So, my biggest regret about this general election is not the prevailing vote weariness, nor is it a despair about political game-playing, but rather, it is the loss of the debate. We are stepping back into an era when the political messages are being controlled and the public are being spoken at, rather than engaged with. The orators are being muffled in an exercise of damage limitation.
In a country where opinions are so divided, voices are quashed, and unity is a distant dream, surely the freedom of speech and debate should be led from the top down? These open conversations and debates would encourage the British public as a whole to be able to communicate and discuss issues which, while they might not end in consensus, will encourage a common purpose and understanding.
I implore Theresa May to re-consider, to give us, the public, the chance to listen to our politicians deliver and educate through the power of their oratory skills, so we can all be involved in politics, rather than being left as detached bystanders in a highly-controlled society, where debate and freedom of speech is seen as an enemy of democracy.
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