Monday, May 03, 2010

The leaders' debate

I spent the afternoon at what the BBC dubbed the "fourth debate" between David Cameron, Nick Clegg, and Gordon Brown. The organisers of the debate were a 'civil society' group called Citizens UK. This involved an array of church groups, community organisations (notably TELCO, which has led some incredible and successful campaigns on the Living Wage), and trade unions. It was also co-sponsored by the Contextual Theology Centre, and had an insufferable air of happy-clappy dippiness about it. I could have done without the smug pieties, and I could certainly have done without the multi-faith choir and its acoustic guitar. Still, it was appropriate, as the logic of the religious service was being reproduced at the level of politics. I'll explain why in a minute.

The group had developed a six-point "manifesto" that it asked each leader to discuss and respond to, and this involved an interesting triangulation. The underpinning ideology was basically Cameronite. The first manifesto point, championing civil society vs the government and markets, is pure 'Big Society'. The demand for a government framework to support community organisers is close to Cameron's idea of government-sponsored 'social entrepreneurs'. The demand for a cap on 'usurious' interest and its replacement with micro-credit is most congruent with Phillip Blond's distributist agenda of capitalising the poor. The introduction to each leader's contribution made it clear that the organisation favoured 'free and competitive markets'. The demand for community land trusts to facilitate cheaper owner-occupied housing was specifically opposed, by one of the speakers, to the alternative of building more council houses. The ambivalence-cum-suspicion toward socialised provision was palpable. Despite this overall ideological thrust, there were some laudable policies, and most of the specific proposals were probably closest to Liberal Democratic policy. These included an amnesty for illegal immigrants, and the end of detention of migrant children. They also included demands for the implementation of a Living Wage (set at £7.60), which every leader evaded in different ways, though all said it was an attractive idea. So, the ideology was Cameronite, and the policies Cleggite. But the leader that was most popular, by far, was Gordon Brown.

Cameron's performance was confident, but ultimately flat and salesy. He made as much as he could of the fact that the ideological presuppositions of the organisers were so close a match for his own 'compassionate conservatism'. "I talk about the Big Society," he enthused, "you are the Big Society." Oh, Jeez - really? I had thought of that line while I was still an epididymal pre-life form. There are extinct species that saw that line coming. He spoke insistently of his 'progressive goals', emoted about the need for greater 'equality of opportunity', made some vague nod in the direction of capping interest rates on debt ("we'll start with store cards, then see from there..."), sounded firmly in favour of a Living Wage, and even took credit on behalf of the Tories for having implemented it in London - I believe it was actually initiated by Livingstone. But though the 'Big Society' stuff was an open goal for him, he had great difficulty connecting his goals with those of his hosts. Clegg, though he had a clear political advantage over the other leaders, was eerily weightless. He was cheered to the rafters when he agreed to an amnesty for illegal immigrants living in the UK, and to an end to child detention. But other than that, my impression of him as a lacklustre candidate who happens to be in the right place at the right time was confirmed. His much vaunted sincerity and directness was belied by the evasiveness of his responses on issues such as the Living Wage - asked about whether his vague murmurs approving the idea of a Living Wage meant that he would legislate it, he said something to the effect that he wasn't sure if it should be compulsory as he didn't know if the money could be found for it.

Brown, who entered to wild applause and hooting of a kind I haven't seen since I was a WWF fan, revealed himself as an effective manipulator and button-pusher. He simulated passion and urgency, laid it on thick with references to the anti-slavery struggle, the civil rights movement, the suffragettes - to whom Citizens UK were compared. When asked about introducing a cap on usurious interest rates, he quipped "well, we all know what the Bible says about the moneylenders! They should be thrown out of the temple." Thrilled applause, as if no one had noticed the last thirteen years go by. Then he gave a very general nod to the idea of capping interest rates on loans. He mentioned a few modestly decent policies such as child tax credits, and said that the Tories inheritance tax plans would hand £200k to the 3,000 richest families (this is true, but it was also true of his own government's earlier inheritance tax cuts). He reminded the audience who had introduced the minimum wage, and spoke of the 'vawlyews' that his father had imbued him with. And he would have completely evaded the issues on which he was at odds with the assembly, such as child detention and immigrants, with the complicity of the organisers, had one contingent of the audience not heckled and demanded an answer. He still didn't really answer, and the organisers didn't press him even though they had, politely but firmly, pressed the other candidates for more specific answers where necessary.

Brown is not the shambling sadsack that he sometimes appears to be on television. He was a smooth, calculating performer, very adept at deflecting potentially problematic issues with off-the-cuff remarks and the invocation of struggle. He said that those struggling for 'fairness' would always find a 'brother' in him, and he finished his speech with this line: "When Cicero made a speech in ancient Rome, they said: 'good speech'. But when Demosthenes spoke in ancient Greece, they said: 'let's march'!" I don't know if it was wise for an incumbent PM whose government has been embroiled in several imperialist wars to compare himself to an insurgent against Alexander the Great.

In the end, what I had thought might be a Cameronite 'Big Society', and then a collective Cleggasm, turned out to be a Labour rally. The organisers, though noisily non-partisan and offensively civil toward their guest speakers, were ultimately facilitators for the Prime Minister's travelling stage show. Their questioning of him was laughably meek, and laudatory. The only moment of real interest in the event was when a protester, whom I have since learned was an anti-nuclear campaigner, disrupted Brown's speech. The protester was pretty roughly man-handled and the audience booed the poor chap as he was being bundled off, before going on to chant "Gordon Brown, Gordon Brown, Gordon Brown..." until it reached a critical mass of embarrassment and everyone shut up. The sympathy for him was unreal. It was like: "first Gillian Duffy, now this...". Brown eventually recovered from the shock and said, "I've had worse". And I watched in bewilderment as thousands of people laughed and cheered as if it was the funniest thing ever. It was like being stuck in a Joe Pasquale gig. It was like being stuck in one of those 'British Comedy's funniest moments' videos, with the scene of Del Boy falling over being played on a continuous loop, and the same galactically disproportionate canned laughter repeating itself ad nauseum. It was gruesome.

So, to return to my original point. There was definitely something of an evangelical atmosphere about this event. If religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the spirit of spiritless conditions - in a word, the opiate of the masses - then this event could be said to have had the same function. Just as with the previous debates, and doubtless all the hustings going on up and down the country, there was a conspicuous absence from the proceedings of any realism about the devastating social upheavals that are ahead of us - what with unprecedented and corrosive spending cuts, and the consequences that shall have. It was airbrushed out, and instead the party were asked to discuss some basically humane policies in an antiseptic atmosphere. The assembly wasn't designed to discuss urgent policy matters in a direct and challenging way, no more so than the fiascos hosted by Sky, BBC or ITV. It was designed to pump up the assembled viewers, simulate democratic participation (though the only participation from the audience that was welcome was applause - no questions or contributions were accepted from the floor), and finally provide a fairly decisive religious and 'civil society' mandate for one Gordon Brown.

This obvious fix-up, by the way, is being reported as a "triumph" for Gordon Brown.