THE BLOG

What We Can Learn About the Farage-Clegg Debate From a Concert Violinist Pretending to Be a Busker

31/03/2014 11:54 BST | Updated 28/05/2014 10:59 BST

A man sits in a bustling Metro station in Washington DC during rush hour, dressed as a street busker, and begins to play the violin. Over the course of the next 45 minutes, thousands of people pass through the station and just seven stop to listen for more than a few seconds. The man is named Joshua Bell. He is one of the best violinists in the world and has just been playing one of the most complex pieces of music ever made, flawlessly, on a violin worth $3.5m. The average cost of a seat at one of his concerts is $100. [Washington Post]

I know what you're thinking: what does a bizarre social experiment in a Washington DC metro station have to do with two British politicians debating whether the UK should stay in or leave the European Union; quite a lot, actually.

Joshua Bell's experiment posed a very important question: 'Is a sublime piece of music still sublime whether it is played by a $100 per night concert musician or a street busker? You might expect the answer to be yes, but it appears the good commuters of Washington DC would disagree.

The same can be said of an argument. If it truly makes sense, should it not convince me whether it comes out of the mouth of a respected professor or their first year student? As we prepare to watch two highly recognisable, silver tongued, and well-dressed politicians take to the airwaves for the second time next Wednesday, this question takes on new importance.

What evidence is there that we are not currently assessing our leaders' arguments on their merit alone?

First there was the massive discrepancy between the commentators' verdict on the LBC debate and the public's. Journalists from across the political spectrum awarded victory to Clegg, while 57% of voters surveyed by YouGov declared Farage the winner.

The second giveaway was the line of questioning from both the moderator and the audience, which focused more on airing pet grievances and questioning the trustworthiness of the two leaders than scrutinising their actual arguments.

Finally, there were the result of a minor experiment by the Central London Debating Society and Sky News during the 2010 general election. This saw a group of our members watch the first ever leaders' debate between Nick Clegg, David Cameron, and Gordon Brown, on a big screen TV, and another group listen to it on the radio. The results were almost unanimous. Nick Clegg won the debate on the big screen and Gordon Brown won it on the radio - despite the two holding very different positions.

It presents our democracy with a real problem if the way we vote is decided more by how our politicians look or sound than by the substance of their arguments. What we really need is an engaged electorate that responds to bold assertions and sweeping statements by taking them to their logical conclusion, and holds their leaders to account when they contradict themselves or answer serious questions with bombastic rhetoric.

There are signs of progress as more and more schools embrace debating as a way of training their pupils to think critically and speak confidently. One school I taught at last year offers philosophy classes to children as young as six. I still remember the headmistress beaming about one particular pupil who told her the only way he knew his chair was real was because he thought it was real, which is the only way he could prove anything existed, including himself. He had never even heard of Rene Descartes.

So what have we learned about the Farage Clegg debate from a concert violinist pretending to be a busker? We've learnt that just as understanding what constitutes a sublime piece of music is central to appreciating it anywhere, knowing what constitutes a good argument is vital to deciding whether Nick Clegg or Nigel Farage has made the better case for their position, regardless of how we personally feel about them or their politics.