Friday, April 16, 2010

Reflections on the First Televised British Political Debate

As Americans rushed to submit their tax returns before midnight on April 15, and political activists held Tea Party rallies around the country, the leaders of the three largest British parties—Gordon Brown of Labor, David Cameron of the Conservatives, and Nick Clegg of the Liberal Democrats—debated each other for ninety minutes on a range of domestic issues: the deficit, health care, education, crime, and budgetary support for the military. Each stressed that his party would build a more fair Britain. It was a scene straight out of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs: “Mirror, mirror, on the wall. Who’s the fairest of them all?”

I hope the League of Women Voters was watching. The event was a real debate run by a superb moderator. Audience members, not journalists with their own agendas, asked the questions. The audience did not interrupt with applause. It put American presidential debates to shame.

Some general impressions of the three leaders. Brown recited laundry lists of Labor achievements during its thirteen years in power, rejecting each attempt to blame it for any current problems. Cameron spoke in generalities of a better Britain, blaming Labor at every opportunity. The two men largely took after each other, trying to minimize the credibility of Clegg’s Liberal Democrats to prevent a hung Parliament in which Clegg held the deciding votes between Labor and Conservative if neither won an outright majority. Clegg talked in big picture terms. He told the British people that a vote for the LibDems was not wasted. Only his party could make a clean start of fixing the Britain that had been misgoverned by alternating Labor and Conservative Parliaments. He promised a straight talking, open, honest government. A post-debate snap poll revealed that 62 percent of viewers declared Clegg the winner; a Guardian poll on Friday gave Clegg 51 percent. Brown and Cameron equally split the remaining percentages.

In my opinion, Cameron committed the only real gaffe. He insisted that the U.K. needed to maintain its independent deterrent as it was impossible to know what’s going to happen in Iran and China (perhaps he meant North Korea?). What do you suppose the Chinese made of that remark? Was Britain preparing for a possible nuclear attack on China?

The U.K.’s fiscal deficit was the biggest bone of contention. The deficit is estimated at £160-70 billion this fiscal year. This sum is about 12 percent of government spending of £700 billion, or 6 percent of GDP of £1.4 trillion. Brown declared that spending could not be cut this year; a reduction of £6 billion in spending would cost 40,000 jobs and risk the recovery. Cameron replied that spending had to be cut by £6 billion to prevent a one percentage point rise in National Insurance contributions that would kill jobs. For Brown, government spending is the source of jobs. For Cameron, tax cuts and private business are the solution. Clegg said that he had spelled out £15 billion in spending cuts, which included the cancellation of Britain’s Triton nuclear submarine program. He appeared the most serious of the three in cutting the deficit.

Cutting £6 billion from spending to prevent a tax increase that would kill jobs, or keeping the ₤6 billion in the budget to insure the recovery by preventing the loss of jobs, must strike any serious thinking person as absurd. £6 billion is 0.8 percent of total government spending, and a minuscule 0.4 percent of GDP. Can a fraction of a percent be the difference between recession and recovery? If so, the British public will face “shock and awe” in spending cuts and tax increases in the next few years as the government is forced to cut its deficit by some £100 billion. On this magnitude, all were silent.

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