It’s official-the Refendum Debate has been kickstarted. Never mind the discussions up and down the country, the grassroots campaigns for Yes, the insidious media buys for No. This was the day it all began. A titanic battle between two men, scrapping over the issues and interrupting eachother. All supported by the live time, action news-esque ramblings of Twitter and the STV “Spin Room.”
This, viewers, is what late capital does to our discourse. It isn’t debate if it isn’t live across 3 medias (none of them radio, and only partially the STV player for the first half hour-or-so.)
It’s a sad import of the US system of TV debates, ridiculed for decades now as being a mind-numbing exercise in discussion which gives machismo a bad name. It al started in 1960, you see, when JFK went up against a little known scrapper from California: Richard Nixon. They didn’t bury Nixon’s campaign-he managed that just by being himself- but the experience was enough to cause unease about the shallowness of TV audiences, and for the next 3 elections there were no debates. Then, from 1976, they became a fixture.
They’re still relatively new to UK politics, to the extent that even with David Cameron resolutely avoiding TV debates with anyone he can get by without it being a critical campaign issue. One of the sadder facts of political life now might be that TV debates are seen as a symptom of an unyielding political shallowness, rather than an as-yet-untapped latency in the electorate. Nobody pretends anymore that TV debates are central to debate: although we’re all uncomfortable about it we can’t bring ourselves to publicly renounce the vacuities we now take for granted.
And why should we? We’ve bought as much of it as is sold-listening to the questions in yesterday’s debate was more heart-wrenching than listening to the answers. “Do you have an address in Scotland?” one woman asked. Only slightly more gentile than “Go home.” That one seemed to be from a Yes perspective but seemingly every No question was to do with currency. Evidently we’ve become so enamoured of our unexplored security that it’s all we can think about. What can we say about our politicians if this is the electorate we share a platform with?
Except it isn’t the case. Every facet of the debate was carefully stage managed. From the podiums to Bernard Ponsonby who, despite an admirable attempt at eliciting answers, was reduced to appearing as if he were refereeing a boxing fight. Audience questions following a predictable maelstrom of ill-considered points and STV’s decision, perhaps without awareness of the irony, to glorify the role of spin in our modern political discourse by elevating it to the status of informed opinion. Everything we saw was a play; contrived, manipulated and neurotic.
The neuroses are the interesting part though. The conceit that this debate was uninspiring seemed almost like the admission of an open secret by many in the spin room. No joy in decrying the politicians’ cynical playing to the electorate, no sincerity to their own anger at the loss of what could have been an interesting moment in discourse. Because, of course, that wasn’t what this was ever meant to be-the spectacle of this debate was, read carefully, the subtle inversion of everything its creators had intended it to be. Furious but not dramatic, intemperate but lacking ire. Now all that’s left is to ask whether or not we should continue this charade in the New Scotland.