Friday, April 23, 2010

Election Points: British politics turning American

My column from today's Liberal Democrat News. Had spaced permitted, I should have made a couple more points.

The first is that the centrality of televised debates to American Presidential debates is a more recent phenomenon than many imagine. The famous Kennedy/Nixon debate 1960 was the first, and the next one did not take place until 1976.

My second point would have been that an emphasis on getting voters to register at all will in many ways represent a return to 19th century British politics. Then, when the franchise was still limited, more than half the battle was getting your supporters on to the electoral role and getting your opponent's struck off.

The US style

I like cricket. I don’t like my beer too cold. I am thinking of buying a tweed jacket. In short, I am about as British as you can get. But even I am coming round to what has proved to be a very American style of general election.

At first, with the emphasis on the leaders’ wives, it did not look promising. For a while the front page of the Conservative campaign website consisted of a large picture of Samantha Cameron and not much else.

But things have got better. The first televised leaders’ debate, with Nick Clegg’s stellar performance, was a triumph for the Liberal Democrats, but it also made surprisingly good television.

Despite their legendary reputation, the American Presidential debates are often remarkably dull. You probably know the story about the elder George Bush being caught sneaking a look at his watch during one of his encounters with Bill Clinton.

Bush later said: “Was I glad when the damned thing was over? Yeah, and maybe that’s why I was looking at my watch — only 10 more minutes of this crap. Maybe if I’d have said that I’d have done better."

But our first debate was not like that. It was more fluid and thus more interesting to watch. If the broadcasting authorities and the politicians had relaxed a little and allowed a little audience reaction, it would have been even better.

Tony Greaves also has doubts about presidential politics, but he made an excellent point about the debates in a Guardian letter last week: “If we'd had them 50 years ago Jo Grimond might have become prime minister, and how much better this country might then have become.”

There is another way in which our politics is becoming more American: we are going to have to work to get some people on to the electoral register at all.

Someone claimed recently that there are 1.5m young people who have not registered to vote. You can criticise their lack of interest, but it may also be down to the rise of the surveillance state and a sense that the authorities know far too much about you already.

Now, if you will excuse me, I am going to have some hominy grits – whatever they are.

1 comment:

Soozcat said...

If you've had polenta, you're halfway to knowing what grits are. They make a very good hot cereal.