Saturday, April 24, 2010

Reflections on the Second British Political Debate

American-style mud-slinging has arrived in Britain. Gordon Brown (Labor), David Cameron (Conservative), and Nick Clegg (Liberal Democrat) have taken to calling each other liars—a strong word in Anglo-American politics—and fear mongers. This is a marked change from the mild-mannered first debate, when the three candidates were feeling their way around an unfamiliar format.

The principal subject of the second debate was to be international issues. The overriding themes remained fairness, climate change, and economic recovery. On military strategy, Clegg’s opposition to the invasion of Iraq and spending £100 billion on a new generation of nuclear submarines distinguished him from the other two, who were largely in agreement. All three stated their support for the brave armed forces and promised to commit them only in service of the national interest.

Clegg committed what I regard as the one gaffe. He charged that the Conservative Party in the European Parliament was aligned with other center-right parties that included anti-Semites, climate change deniers, and homophobes—guilt by association. This charge was below the belt, and it will be interesting to see if it costs him points with the British electorate.

A softer association with Europe distinguished Cameron, who opposes the transfer of power from Westminster to Brussels without a public referendum, from Brown and Clegg, who can be classified as europhiles.

All three promised more support for the elderly and maintaining other social services, while promising to reduce the deficit. None was persuasive. This was doubletalk at its best.

Several of the questions left something to be desired. What did the candidates think about a possible visit by the Pope? What did each candidate do in his life to reduce his personal carbon footprint? All three stressed rail over air travel and the benefit of home insulation.

The strategies were similar to the first debate. Clegg blamed Labor and Conservative for the economic and political mess. Cameron blamed Labor. Brown warned that Clegg was irresponsible on security and Cameron’s reduction in spending would wreck the recovery.

On style, Clegg was less impressive in the second debate. Both Cameron and Brown appeared more confident. As of this posting, intrade.com puts the probability of a Conservative victory at 72 percent. My sense is that some of the steam will go out of Clegg’s campaign over the next week, and that he will need a blockbuster performance in the third and final debate on April 29 to recover the high ground.

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