Monday, October 5, 2009


Candidates for head of state or head of government take part in televised debates in many of the world's major democracies. Until now, the United Kingdom has been an exception.

Now, as the U.K. approaches a general election that will be held no later than June of next year, the major party leaders in that country have agreed in principle to participate in such debates. This is subject to the usual caveat the details need to be worked out, but I can't think of any American example where, after agreeing in principle, candidates allowed the details to derail the process. According to the BBC report, one potential stumbling block involves an issue that frequently arises in the U.S.: the involvement of minor parties.

One reason why Britain has been slow to adopt the campaign debate concept is that, while Parliament is in session, the party leaders engage in televised debate every week in the House of Commons. That is known as Prime Minister's Questions. Here in the U.S., C-SPAN televises those sessions. If you enjoy British humor, as I do, you should give it a look. There is plenty of humor, both intended and unintended.

Brown addressed that issue on his party's website, by saying that "I believe it is also right that the parties debate the issues not just in Parliament but in every arena where the public will join in the discussion."

Televised debates are risky for a candidate such as Conservative leader David Cameron, who leads in the polls. But Cameron is confident, and justifiably so, in his TV performing skills.

After the first such debates in a U.S. presidential campaign, in 1960, the leading candidate in each of the next three elections declined to debate (Lyndon Johnson in 1964, and Richard Nixon in 1968 and 1972). But, since such debates became institutionalized in 1976, I think it would be very difficult for any candidate to opt out of them.

I still maintain, as I argued here, that these are not really debates.

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