Televised debates are not enough to energise the voters

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With the headlines full of pre-election sparring, it seems that one of the pivotal decisions of modern times is almost upon us. But despite all the patriotic rhetoric about the Mother of Parliaments, Britain’s democratic record is looking distinctly unimpressive these days, thanks to the apparently irresistible collapse of popular interest.

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In 2005, Tony Blair won a third term with the support of just 9.5 million people, just 22 per cent of the electorate on a 61 per cent turnout. And although interest may well rebound this year, recent elections for council seats, local assemblies and the European Parliament tell an even more dispiriting story of indifference.

But perhaps this is not so surprising. While we love to congratulate ourselves on our hallowed institutions, Britain has been fully democratic for only a short time. After the Great Reform Act of 1832, just one in six adult men could vote, and only in 1928 were women given the same voting rights as men.

Whether Britain has been better governed under these reformed arrangements is a moot point. William Gladstone, one of the greatest leaders in our history, won his first term in 1868 with a feeble 1.4 million votes. By contrast, John Major won ten times that amount in 1992, but the biggest mandate in British history did not make him a more effective prime minister.

Salvation may be at hand, however, thanks to the wheeze of importing American-style debates involving the three main party leaders – appeals for involvement from Plaid Cymru and the SNP have fallen on deaf ears. Given the enthusiasm for this innovation in the press, I can only conclude that most journalists have never actually sat through the mind-numbing regurgitation of facts and figures, the caked orange make-up and gleaming rictus grins, that characterise an American presidential debate. In any case, don’t we see enough of the party leaders as it is – and isn’t British politics far too presidential already?

The irony is that American presidential debates generally make no difference to the eventual outcome. The first and most famous debates, which pitted John F Kennedy against Richard Nixon in 1960, are popularly thought to have swung the election towards Kennedy, but actually this is nonsense. Nixon is supposed to have lost because of his sweaty and gaunt appearance, yet the actual footage shows him looking relatively relaxed and composed, and newspapers at the time barely mentioned his looks. And although Kennedy moved into a narrow lead after the first debate, the polls promptly narrowed again and remained neck and neck for the rest of the campaign.

Much the same pattern is true of the other presidential debates. Popular wisdom has it that Gerald Ford lost the 1976 election after his gaffe in the second Ford-Carter debate (“There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe”) – but once again the polls narrowed and the two men went into election day neck and neck.

In 1984, the Reagan-Mondale debates were notable only for the 73-year-old president’s excellent joke about his age – “I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience” – and were otherwise entirely forgettable. As for the Bush-Dukakis, Clinton-Bush and Clinton-Dole debates, only a nerd could possibly find them at all interesting, while the Bush-Gore, Bush-Kerry and even Obama-McCain debates were drab, colourless affairs.

Only one debate, I think, can genuinely claim to have influenced the result: Ronald Reagan’s showdown with the hapless Jimmy Carter in 1980, and even then only because most people were so amazed that the chronically underestimated Reagan could actually string a coherent sentence together.

The conventional wisdom seems to be that since British parliamentarians have been schooled in the bear-pit of the House of Commons, we can look forward to three spicy and scintillating evenings. But I suspect the opposite is true. Brown, Cameron and Clegg will be so used to one another (just as we are to them) that they will have nothing new to say, and it will end up being like Prime Minister’s Questions, only spread over a suffocating three hours. Perhaps I am being too pessimistic. But I will dig out my treasured video of Clinton-Dole for the night of the first debate, just in case it all gets a bit dull.

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This is an opinion piece by Dominic Sandbrook, first published in the March issue of BBC History Magazine