We were watching Sky News’ coverage of the general election when my Bulgarian wife commented on the triviality and vacuousness of the proceedings. We witnessed “tough-guy” Miliband – at least in his recent incarnation – keen to point out his resilience following an attack by Michael Fallon. We then had Nigel Farage pretending to be sympathetic to Miliband, doubtless hoping to get a few more votes from disgruntled ex-Tories. Sometimes political machinations are just so unsubtle. “I’ll get into bed with Miliband if it helps me win South Thanet,” he seemed to be saying.
My wife’s comments came after Cameron went on what appeared to be a quickie foodie tour of the UK during which the method for topping scones was discussed – what comes first, the cream or the jam?
‘Where was the beef?’ my wife demanded. She expected to see some keynote speeches and detailed cross-examination from journalists. She thought Sophy Ridge’s question to Miliband on whether he was a help or a hindrance in Scotland to be demeaning and silly. Wasn’t there going to be discussion on policy?
I coughed and spluttered as I mulled my response. It’s strange how one’s instinctive impulse is to defend one’s home country. I wanted to be able to tell her that Bulgarian democracy was only 25 years old and we, in the UK, with our revered, centuries-old traditions, knew what we were doing. We had moved on to a more advanced form of electioneering, one that shunned the predictable question-and-answer format. We were now placing our politicians in everyday situations close to the public. We were so sophisticated that we had advanced beyond any discussion of the issues in favour of a more down to earth experience whereby the camera could detect traces of insincerity and …
Of course, I couldn’t say any of these things. It seems as though the hustings have deteriorated to something altogether puerile. The butterfly has regressed to a slug. Perhaps modern democracies always go this way. They peak somewhere along the line, this being the point where debate is incisive but civil and free of personal abuse, where journalists are probing but not indecent. Maybe we really are at the stage where politicians know that serious debate is dead and where their spin doctors just have an eye on the day’s catchphrase and photo opportunity.
In the recent Bulgarian election, by contrast, the politicians were grilled quite thoroughly on TV but without a descent into abuse. If Britain has now passed its best, if it’s true that everyone demeans themselves, then at what point was the line crossed? Fifty years ago, we used to have a style of interviewing that was over-obsequious. It was Robin Day who pioneered the more aggressive grilling of politicians. It’s incredible to think that referring to a politician as “here today, gone tomorrow,” – as Day did with John Nott in 1982 – could have triggered a walk-out. Now it seems we have rather silly interviewers and politicians. Nobody seems to have much dignity or gravitas.
It’s difficult not to have a healthy disdain for all the parties. Yet, over the weekend, I read the views of two very distinguished figures, Brian Sewell and Dr David Starkey. Both were deliciously acerbic about Cameron – in the way that only certain of their ilk can be – but indicated they would vote for him to prevent a Miliband government. Faute de mieux. Agreed.