Since the first TV debate between the candidates for Prime Minister, we have witnessed the rise of "Cleggmania" and the way in which the Liberal Democrats have surpassed the Conservatives, as a viable alternative for a new government. Though, it seems more likely that the public are now flocking to Nick Clegg out of pragmatism, better than Conservative or Labour, rather than a liberal sentiment reawakened by Clegg's performance last week. It seems as though the "popularity" of the Lib Dems has yet to sink into the minds of Labour and Conservative. The best David Cameron could muster was an attack on the possibility of a hung parliament, failing to notice that people probably couldn't care less about "hanging" the parliament. At the same time, Gordon Brown has tried to make himself look like the "Economist of the Year", a last ditch grab at all he has left to run on. But in all fairness, the three candidates do not differ so greatly in their economic policies and even on domestic policies regarding immigration.
The central issue of this TV debate was international affairs and some more general issues, it was televised on Sky News and chaired by Adam Boulton. The debate was held in Bristol and the audience consisted of people from the South-West. The set up should be noted for it's nationalistic symbolism, the use of the Union Jack was reminiscent of the way the Old Glory has been used on Fox News. There was also a potential for a conservative bias as Cameron has met with Rupert Murdoch numerous times in the past. Though, Nick Clegg was placed literally at the centre of the debate, instead of Cameron in the last debate, literally giving him the middle ground between Cameron and Brown. In the opening statements, Brown was keen to criticise the possibility of a hung parliament and present a "majority Labour government" as the best way to solve Britain's problems. Cameron, on the other hand, brought up his idea of the "Big Society" again. Whereas, Clegg hit Labour hard on the Iraq war and alleged human rights violations, implying that Labour had betrayed the ideals of British society.
The first question raised was on the European Union. David Cameron put a great deal of emphasis on Britain, keep the pound and maintain sovereignty, as he insisted that we should be in the EU but not controlled by Brussels. Nick Clegg used his past experience with the EU for leverage, while criticising the lack of "democratic efficiency" in Europe and pointing out that there are certain things we as just one country cannot deal with alone - international crime being a main example. Gordon Brown stressed the importance of jobs, trade and business; the way in which British economic growth is partly reliant on European economic growth. Brown also pointed to isolation as particularly bad, as strength in numbers is the only way to deal with international crime. David Cameron flashed his Eurosceptic credentials and attacked Labour and the Liberals for "handing over" power from Westminster to Brussels.
Cameron moved on to advocating referenda on instances where yet more power might be "handed over" to Brussels. Though, it should be pointed out that the comfort Cameron showed, in permitting the people to determine British policy in relation to the EU, is not reflected in other areas of Conservative policy. For instance, the Conservatives do not favour extending democracy to economic issues, as they prefer to let the public make decisions which they approve of. Nick Clegg could have capitalised on this, but instead he attacked the Conservatives for backing off on their guarantee of a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty. Though, Clegg thinks that we need a referendum on whether we should stay in the EU and he is openly for Britain increasing it's presence in the EU. He made that clear as he praised an operation, in which the EU was instrumental, that brought down a paedophile ring.
Essentially, the candidates all came out as for the Union, only David Cameron opposed greater integration and specifically Britain entering the Euro zone. Though, in practice the Labour Party are not exactly enthusiastic at the possibility of swapping the pound for the Euro. Brown attacked Cameron, for taking such a stance on the EU, on economic grounds. To which Cameron quickly reacted with a populist assault on the Lib Dems and Labour, accusing both parties of lacking "trust" in the people. But Gordon Brown soon attacked Cameron and the Conservatives for leaving Britain isolated and mixing with "right-wing extremists". At which point, Nick Clegg also attacked the Conservatives for associated with the Eurosceptic Right, which he sees as homophobic, anti-Semitic and in denial about climate change. As Cameron and Clegg began to bicker, Brown compared them to his children squabbling at "bath time". He went on to accuse Cameron of being "anti-European" and Clegg of being "anti-American".
At this point the debate moved on to British interventions in far away lands. Clegg made it clear that he supported the war in Afghanistan and opposed the war in Iraq, highlighting strategy and equipment as major issues, leaving open the possibility of intervention under a Lib Dem government. Brown launched into the kind of rhetoric reminiscent of the early half of the last 10 years. Describing al-Qaeda, in neoconservative terms, as a highly sophisticated network of terrorist cells stretching across the world, that could strike at any moment. Brown pointed to Somalia, Yemen and Pakistan as countries where al-Qaeda is active. Thus, military intervention can never be ruled out completely. Cameron reverted to the issues of strategy and equipment, stressing that if we are to intervene in the future it should be done "properly" - with better equipment and strategic planning. Just like the first debate, the real issue of the war's legitimacy is marginalised in favour of "safe topics" like resources, strategy and terrorism.
The following question was on climate change, the question was given a personal framing to trigger a wave of anecdotes, and bring the personal qualities, of the candidates to the forefront of the debate. Brown immediately claimed to be travelling mostly by train and to have installed a solar panel on his home in Scotland, the "bad weather" of which he emphasised. Cameron stressed the importance of insulation of houses and showed off his opposition to the third run-way at Heathrow. Clegg claimed to travel by train, but made sure that the audience understood he wants to do more like most people. He went on to criticise taxes for punishing people, with a notable reference to "plane tax". Where the Labour and Conservative candidates agreed on nuclear power and renewable energy resources, Clegg argued that nuclear power is too expensive and the transition would be too slow. Insulation and efficient energy use is a better way to curve climate change according to the Liberals.
On the Pope's upcoming visit to the United Kingdom, all of the candidates essentially welcomed the visit and emphasised "openness". Though, all three of them attacked the Catholic Church's track record and policies on gay rights and contraception. David Cameron and Nick Clegg pointed to religious tolerance as important, while trying to appear understanding of the "anguish" of Catholics. Prime Minister Brown focused on the abuse and stressed that the Church has to deal with the failure to protect the young, though as pointed out previously, he too welcomed the visit. Though, this is a complicated and difficult matter as Catholic Church is the largest Christian Church in the world. And Christianity is the biggest religion in the world. The Pope being a deeply controversial figure does not help the situation, let alone the horrors of paedophilia and Ratzinger's disgraceful role in the cover-up.
When voting and faith in politics came up, Nick Clegg was all to "eager" to stress his party's dedication to reform and proportional representation in Parliament. Brown and Cameron were also keen to emphasise their "eagerness" for reform, namely the decentralisation of power, sacking corrupt MPs and referenda to decide the future of the House of Lords. Where Brown stressed that voting matters, Cameron attacked the idea of a hung parliament. This is where, the populism of the Conservative campaign came in. Cameron spoke of giving "power to the people" and how the government has been "treating the people like mugs". Brown appeared weak by comparison, only expressing "shame" at the actions of MPs. But Clegg may have appeared the most calm and focused of the three, as he had to bring the debate back to the issue after Cameron and Brown descended into a round of bickering.
On pensions, Brown talked about linking pensions to earnings to deal with poverty among pensioners and ensuring that every woman should have a pension. Cameron argued that his party would "uprate" the pensions to earnings, insteads of just prices, increase the retirement age and put a great deal of emphasis on desert - as in what people deserve - as opposed to need. We should not be asking the question, do old people deserve pensions? As to do so misses the point of pensions completely, most retired people need a pension to fall back on. Whether or not the government deems a person worthy of a pension is an irrelevant matter. Clegg argued to restore earnings link and cover the fuel costs of pensioners. At this point, Brown attacked Clegg and Cameron on fuel allowances. But not on the grounds that one's fuel costs should be covered by the pension system. Cameron accused Labour of fear mongering and tries to appear "trustworthy" by comparison. Once again, none of the candidates proposed a method of resolving or preventing the pensions crisis.
On the possibility of a coalition government, Cameron and Brown appeared to prefer a "decisive government" as opposed to a coalition between two parties. Though, Cameron pointed out that the parties should work together when they have to and Brown stressed that it was up to the voters. Clegg praised bipartisan politics and appeared to favour a coalition government on the grounds of "openness". Cameron tried to make himself appear unique by clarifying that his party would make the "best of a coalition" but that he disagrees with the other parties. If we take this debate as accurate of the three main parties, they do not differ so greatly on many issues. On pensions all of them agreed that the link to earnings should be restored. All three claimed to favour firing crooked MPs and reforms. Neither of the three condemned the Afghan war and instead focused on issues of resources, strategy and counter-terrorism. On the EU, only Cameron openly opposed greater integration into the EU. But apparently, a coalition wouldn't work as they "disagree" on so many "issues" and a coalition would be "inefficient" as a consequence.
Nick Clegg went on to point out that the "world is not going to end" if there is a hung parliament, the public deserves a government which represents them and puts their interests first. Whereas, Gordon Brown tried to appear bipartisan, pointing out that he has worked with Liberals and business people in the past. David Cameron bragged about the support of over 1,000 businesses, in other words the support of over 1,000 rich white men, and attacked Brown on national insurance or the "jobs tax" as the Conservatives call it. It is this kind of nonsense rhetoric and deceptive sound-bites that is furthering the descent of the electorate into apathy. If a politician dared to stop attacking their rivals for a moment so they could deliver an honest and intelligent message on their policies.
Immigration was the final issue and the cherry-picked question was asked by a woman of foreign ancestry, obviously to ensure the avoidance of any racist connotations. Clegg proposed tightening border controls and spoke a lot about his regional policy, to avoid putting "strain" on public services. Though, it should be pointed out that out of the 300,000 migrant workers from Eastern Europe, less than 1% have gone on benefits. But you won't read that in the right-wing press. Neither will you read that 2% of housing in the last 10 years went to people who are referred to as "foreigners" by Daily Mail columnists. Brown reacted by attacking the Lib Dem policy of amnesty, in it's place he advocates the point system which acts as a filter letting only immigrants who have skills needed in Britain to settle here. Later, Brown went on to come out in support of ID cards for immigrants, which is indicative of the Labour Party's right-ward shift. Cameron talked bluntly about putting a cap on immigration and also attacked the Lib Dem amnesty.
During the closing statements, Brown emphasised pragmatism, the importance of the recovery, and the "responsibility" he takes for Afghanistan. He went on to attack Cameron and Clegg as risking Britain's recovery with deep cuts and putting Britain's national security at risk on foreign policy. Cameron attacks Brown as a "desperate" fear mongerer, presenting his party as "new" and "fresh". Cameron put a great deal of emphasis on values and the right leadership, references to 'One Nation Conservatism', while topping it off with talk of a "clean break" with "30 years of failure". The implication being that the breakdown of society and politics goes back to the early years of Thatcherism. This is more than likely a purely populist assault on the woman he hopes to emulate. Clegg came out with a more optimistic vision of how "we" can make Britain a force for good in the world, emphasising the "different" behaviour of his party. Clegg referred to the Conservatives and Labour as "old choices of the past". This debate was littered with the usual buzzwords and soundbites, but it was far less interesting than the first, but it will no doubt contribute to the electoral turnout. Whether or not that contribution will be positive remains to be seen.