What would Improve Political Debates? Actual Debating!

by Alex Massie

More on the "exciting" debates between Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Nick Clegg (the leader of the Liberal Democrats who, though in no position to become Prime Minister has to be included) that are, inevitably, going to become the most "important" moments in this year's election campaign. As I suggested earlier, these are problematic for all sorts of reasons, not the least of which is that they won't be debates at all - at least not in the sense that anyone who's ever taken part in any real debating would understand the term.

Mr Eugenides puts it well:

What's ironic about this is that in the debating I know, it's usually the quality of a team's arguments that wins the day, not their style. Beyond a certain level of competence, everyone in the final of the Oxford Union intervarsity (say) is assumed to be confident, quick on their feet, at ease in front of an audience.

Sure, delivery matters, but when it comes to deciding who has won, the main focus of judges' discussions is the debaters' content. What did he say? Did he give any evidence for that claim? Did he explain that clearly, and was I convinced? These are the things that "real" debating hinges on, more often than not. So it's somewhat depressing to note that in these three "debates", the criteria for success will be almost exactly the opposite. Sod what the guy says; was that sweat I saw on his upper lip?

The second big issue in these debates is the media narrative, and this is where the expectations game kicks into play. Candidates will routinely build up their opponent as the love child of Winston Churchill and Cicero, possessed of oratorical gifts that would make Martin Luther King weep with envy. Anything short of a physical assault on the other candidates will be hailed as a "draw", at the very least and, given expectations, any kind of draw hailed as a "win".

Labour spinners will try to make a virtue of their man's misanthropic, malevolent awkwardness, suggesting that Cameron is nothing more than a suit and a haircut. They will massage expectations down so low that any sort of coherent performance will be trumpeted as an extraordinary coup, as if Brown was an orangutan that had been shipped by crate from Borneo and taught to speak English only last Tuesday.

But this is all the fault of the format. There will be no cheering from the cheap seats, no back and forth, no direct interrogation of the other candidates, nothing but the dreary recitation of policy positions so tired and familiar and hackneyed that we're all more than sick of them already. No wonder they're likely (one could be wrong about this) to prove a massive, crushing disappointment.

Outwardly and publicly all the candidates and certainly the TV companies will promise an exciting in-depth discussion of the "issues" but since Gordon and Dave and wee Nicky are pretty familiar with answering the questions they're likely to receive in the debates it's hardly likely that there will be any substantive revelations, nor any interesting insight into how they actually think or approach problems or see the world. No wonder the contest becomes a kind of beauty pageant in which the only marks that count are those awarded for style.

Within the limitations of the genre there's not really any satisfactory way of avoiding this. So change the rules and, rather than having the debates be little more than a souped up version of Radio 4's Today programme, why not make them actual, you know, debates?

There's a real appetite for this sort of thing. Pick a good motion and attract some competent speakers and you can fill a large hall in London pretty quicky. Debating is actually back in style and not simply a jolly undergraduate wheeze.

Since we're flying with pigs here, let's imagine a situation (and this would be equally applicable in the US too) in which the rival candiates - Brown and Cameron in this instance - were given 15 minutes notice of the motion for debate. Each would iuse that time to think of their arguments before in turn delivering a ten minute speech followed by five minute rebuttal speeches and a final two minute summation of the main points. The whole thing would be done in not much more than 40 minutes.

The key, obviously, would be to pick interesting motions that allowed one to see how they actually manage under pressure. A mix of conceptual and factual topics might be best.

It would have been good sport seeing John McCain propose the motion That this House Thinks Brutus Was an Honourable Man or Gordon Brown defending the idea that This House Would Rather Be Keynes than Hayek. Imagine George W Bush proposing that This House Believes the World Has Learnt Nothing from 9/11 or This House Believes in Guns, not God or any politicians arguing a nice, open-ended motion such as This House Believes in the Right to Choose that could be defined in any number of ways.

You get the idea. It's hard to see how this could be worse than the way debates are currently organised.

Granted there are difficulties here too, not the least of which being that it's not obvious that the qualities that make for a good debater* are necessarily those that make for a good Prime Minister or President. Then again, the ability to learn and recite talking points - the chief skill involved in the game as its currently played - doesn't seem obviously useful or illuminating either.

*Indeed, long experience of the type suggests that the opposite may well be true...

How would you improve these press conferences masquerading as debates? Let me know at alexmassieATgmail.com