Last week David Cameron and Ed Miliband, one of whom will almost certainly be Prime Minster after the election on May 7th, faced an interview with Jeremy Paxman, who a year after retiring from Newsnight has waded back into the fray to facilitate a "debate" between the leaders of the two main parties. The whole thing was an unmitigated farce from start to finish as they couldn't even agree terms for a head to head debate, so instead had a farcical interview with Paxman in his best hammed up school master interview style. Thus we got to hear the absurd incoherent mumblings of Miliband and the slimey platitudes of Cameron saying essentially "he started it, Sir" on everything from cutting NHS funding to the ruinous levels of debt we have accumulated. Though both agreed that the main culprit was the banking crisis of 2008 - seven years ago.
It's often said that politics in the the United States is run by big money and lobby groups, and leaders are shielded from the rough and tumble Westminster style debate, but it would be pretty well unthinkable in the US that the electorate would not have a debate between the two main protagonists in a Presidential election. Since 1960 it has been televised, and it was broadcast on the radio before this. It's hard to imagine this sort of shambles taking place across the Atlantic, so why is it acceptable in the United Kingdom?
Well firstly it isn't actually acceptable here. It's a pitiful sideshow to most people in the country who regard pretty much all politicians with contempt and will grudgingly, negatively vote for one or the other in an attempt to keep their least favourite party out.
But it clearly is acceptable to the political establishment, who could have left an empty chair in Cameron's place, and otherwise poured well deserved scorn on his cowardly refusal to engage his opponents. The best explanation I can think as to why this woeful episode has passed off as a blip rather than a scandal is that it helps the entire political establishment hide from the uncomfortable reality that neither "leader" deserves to be taken seriously.
Ed Miliband is literally impossible to make any sense of, as he rambled and muttered his way through the interview, showing what the Daily Mirror called "passion" and what I would call confused anger, so common in socialists (he is) who can't believe that people might not share their bonkers world view that the best way of making people better off is to make some other people worse off. His face was visibly contorting with anger at points, this quiet, bookish intellectual who can barely string a sentence together, less still make a coherent argument. To cap it all off, when asked if he was tough enough he gave some nonsensical story about how he had "stood up to the leader of the free world" over Syria, and replied with a cringeworthy "Hell yes" he was tough enough. It's the kind of thing Spitting Image would have him say.
At the other end of the scale David Cameron, already Prime Minster for 5 years, strings sentences together with an easy confidence, being only careful to ensure that they mean absolutely nothing. I'm quite sure it's possible to program a decent phone to answer questions in the style of David Cameron. It picks up on certain key words like "immigration" and spews out a load of meaningless statistics in a vain attempt to pretend not to be as inept and dishonest as everyone knows he is. When asked about his promise before the last election to get immigration down to "tens of thousands" before the last election he burbled on about immigration from outside the EU is down 13%. It's the equivalent of searching Google for "Lancia" and finding that there is a town of that name in Nevada. A passing curiosity but of little interest to people who actually care about this problem. He's like a car salesman faced with a blown engine - he can make the right noises and give vague assurances about the warranty, but any fool can tell that he has absolutely no idea what he is talking about and is looking for the cheapest, easiest exit route that won't hit his commission.
None of this is really helped by Paxman, who looked for all the world like a caricature of his former self, coming out of retirement to bolster his pension fund. His no nonsense style of doggedly holding his subject to the point remains effective, but he only seemed interested in employing it to pick over the candidate's records of failure, rather than getting any insight into what, if anything, either of them intended to do during the next parliament, let alone what any of them actually think.
And that of course brings us to the biggest failing of both of these so called leaders and the parties they nominally lead. They don't actually think anything beyond a deeply held belief that they should be Prime Minister. They both firmly believe in the NHS, they both think we need tighter immigration controls, and we need to reform our relationship with the European Union, and all the rest. But they don't have any concrete ideas for any of this, leaving us with the over riding impression that they don't actually believe any of it. They just know that they have to say this to get elected.
It would be more impressive if Miliband said that he thought we should put more money into the NHS, and we should tax people earning over £X to pay for this, or if Cameron said that we should actually charge a fee for visiting a GP. Offer voters a genuine choice of two different ideas which are actually based in reality and see which one they prefer.
The fantasy that this programme of tax cuts and spending increases, along with reducing our absurd levels of borrowing, can all be achieved by reducing waste in the public sector and clamping down on benefit scroungers is utter fantasy. Every government in my lifetime has promised the same thing, and as far as I can tell we have more of both than ever.
The "leadership debates" failed to live up to their name on both counts - there was no debate, simply a faux tough interview, and there was no leadership in terms of the figureheads of the two main parties offering any sort of vision or coherent programme for running the country. Instead it was simply more of the same impotent mewling that has replaced political discourse with a absurd auction of tax and spending moves that ultimately cancel each other out and produce an ever growing state sector, fueled by debt and perpetually underfunded, doing too much, badly and voting itself more money.