Friday, 6 March 2015

The great debate debate

Two months out from the UK general election, and one question seems to be dominating the headlines.

We are nearing the end of five years of a government that has pursued austerity policies which were promoted as the way to reduce national debt, though they haven’t. What they have done, on the other hand, is increase poverty, with multifold growth in dependency on food banks in this First-World nation, and growing numbers of vulnerable people being driven to despair and sometimes suicide by denial of any kind of support.

At the same time, those policies have entrenched the mindset that views the wealthiest as the most valuable, the most admirable, the most entitled to protection.

And against that background, what are we debating? Why, debates.

The Prime Ministerial variety. The idea is that anyone with a chance of winning the premiership, or even anyone leading a parliamentary party however remote the likelihood of their getting to Downing Street, should be lined up on TV to bang away at each other about what they or their Party bring to the party.

Most people find these events colossally dull. It’s not at all clear that they have any effect on the outcome of the election. Last time round, Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrats, seemed to gain most support from the debates, but he ended up losing five MPs at the election.

David Cameron clearly wants no debates. His opponents are accusing him of cowardice, of running scared.

Frankly, I think they’re wrong. I believe his advisers have spotted what a lot more voters should have seen: the man is profoundly lazy and hates having to master a brief. That’s why he frequently gives the impression that he makes up policy on the hoof, without thinking through the consequences. For instance, he slashed spending on flood defences on assuming office, by nearly 20%. Then there was serious widespread flooding in 2013, and he had to dig up some emergency funding, so as not to look heartless.

Last time round: David Cameron, left, with Nick Clegg and Gordon Brown
This time he's too idle. And, amazingly, it seems to be working for him
Note that “look” is the key word there: being heartless is fine for this self-declared Christian Prime Minister, but he doesn’t want to look it.

Interestingly, by coming up with funds which went some of the way towards replacing those he’d cut, he won plaudits and was seen as statesmanlike. Instead of being perceived as inept in the first place, and slow to fix his error.

And all that explains why he doesn’t want to debate. It doesn’t matter how incompetent his actions are, he can still emerge from the mess looking good. Which is partly a reflection on the way of thinking of far too many voters, and partly a measure of the effectiveness of the opposition to him.

In those circumstances, why would his advisers inflict all the trouble of debate prep on a man as disinclined as he is to hard work? When he doesn’t seem to need it?

So instead he’s found excuse after excuse for not having the debates. He wouldn’t take part unless the Greens were invited, as though he cared about the Greens, a party far more firmly of the left than the official Labour opposition. When the Greens were included, he then insisted that the Democratic Unionist Party from Ulster should be invited too. Now he’s saying he would only do one debate at most.

What’s happened? The press and the opposition have walked straight into the trap. They’re all raving about whether there should be debates, whether Cameron should take part, whether they should take place without him if he refuses to turn up.

So we obsess about a process issue. While people out there are being exposed to real and unbearable suffering – truly unbearable in some cases, as people die of it. And the proportion of the electorate that is apathetic about the whole business of politics continues to grow, regarding it as essentially irrelevant to their lives.

Which, if the great debate on debates is all politicians can offer, it certainly is.

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