It took many years of persuasion for Britain to get its first televised general election debate, a full 50 years after the famous Nixon/Kennedy debate which ushered the genre into US politics.
Even the dramatised and idealised West Wing debate, featuring Jed Bartlet’s successor Matt Santos vying with Republican candidate Arnold Vinick, could not influence the stuffy regime of British politics to step into the 21st century. At least not until 2010.
It was then that the Tory opposition had its moment, with the Labour government in trouble and its leader deeply unpopular and unlikely to impose his personality on the nation weeks before the election.
For the Tories things did not go as planned, and instead of David Cameron being able to show his economic credentials and prime-ministerial qualities, the debates had a result that even the most experienced of political commentators failed to predict.
Indeed, it still is hard to fathom, given the general disgust felt for the duplicitous Lib Dem leader now, how Nick Clegg emerged as victor from the debates, so much so that a new term was added to the political lexicon — albeit briefly — “Cleggmania.”
Perhaps the experts should have been able to predict it? After all, hadn’t the first-ever televised debate revealed how style might matter more than substance?
In the 1960 Nixon/Kennedy debate it was said afterwards that those listening on the radio thought Richard Nixon had come out as victor, putting forward, as they heard, detailed answers and lucid explanations.
They hadn’t seen him sweating so much under the lights of the television studio that his perspiration washed off the make-up covering his five o’clock shadow, giving him a decidedly villainous look.
Those watching their TV screens put John Kennedy way ahead — his youthful good looks and well-practised manner of looking straight at the camera when answering won the day, and probably the election a month-and-a-half later.
In 2010 the effect of Clegg’s sudden and somewhat unexpected popularity ended Cameron’s hopes of an outright victory, and it’s clear he and his henchman George Osborne are not keen on repeating the same mistake.
Their sudden concern for “fairness” and the refusal to take part in televised debates this year because the Green Party is not being given the same recognition as Ukip must rank, as Andrew Rawnsley has said, as “one of the most terrible excuses in political history.”
Cameron must know that, although he has managed to obfuscate and garble his way through answers for five years, he might not get the same gen
tle treatment in the debate as he gets when appearing on the Andrew Marr Show.
Similarly, he would not be able to rely on a wall of deafening noise behind him, as he does at Prime Minister’s questions, enabling him to fudge and completely avoid answering the questions put to him.
As his opponents rightly suggest, he is clearly running scared, keen to avoid the inevitable embarrassment a few well-directed questions could cause.
The majority of the millions watching would welcome the opportunity to hear the Prime Minister attempt to justify such callous acts as the bedroom tax, the tax giveaways to the rich and the reduction of government spending to levels last seen in the 1930s.
Cameron also knows that, given a few minutes to speak without interruption, Ed Miliband could well display those decisive characteristics which tend to desert him when faced with a bacon sandwich, as well as coherently outline the more popular of Labour’s policies, which much of the media tend to ignore.
Then there is the fact that debates often spur more people to use their votes, something which the Tories are obviously against — if they wanted to encourage more participation they would insist on polling stations being situated in town centres, supermarket car parks or university campuses.
As all the parties bar the Tories want the debates to take place, they should be doing their utmost to make them happen, starting with pressing the broadcasters to include the Greens, and so calling Cameron’s bluff.
Televised debates before general elections, including the leaders of all the political parties with representation in the Commons, should be written into the statute books.
Unpopular prime ministers should not be allowed to devise spurious pretexts to duck out of them. The electorate has a right not only to hear politicians justify their policies but also to see them squirm when they fail.