I found the much-trumpeted Leaders' Debate on Domestic Issues rather dreary last night. Anybody well-versed in the arguments of the three main political parties probably would have done, as they only trotted out all the things they've been saying on the campaign trail already. What I was watching for, I suppose, was to see how they interacted; what they were like face to face without the pantomime elements of Prime Minister's Questions obstructing any meaningful analysis of the men themselves. But I was pretty disappointed.
Gordon Brown, of course, is famously dour. He can't help it. He looks, permanently, as if he's just come back from a funeral. David Cameron, to me, resembles a senior estate agent. He's slick, but the polish is just beginning to wear off because he's been in the game too long; and even when he tells you his name is David Cameron you suspect him of insincerity. Nick Clegg is liked by a lot of people I know but he looks physically small, and so clean and well-scrubbed he might be a schoolboy let in on the debate for practise. He is also, it seems to me, a poor orator. A lot of what he said last night might be true, or at least persuasive, but he phrased it in such woolly, imprecise, cliched language I was quite shocked to see the first polls after the debate had him coming out ahead. Who are you out there, English voters? What drugs are you taking?
David Cameron showed a strange lack of conviction for somebody who shouts his face off like a pretentious fishmonger every week at PMQs. Obviously somebody had told him to keep calm so that he looked "prime ministerial". The net effect, however, was to make him look as if he'd taken heavy tranquilizers to calm his nerves before the show. He made a couple of remarks that may have been intended as jokes during his speeches, but they fell flat with the invited audience. There was not a murmur of approval. Or disapproval, for that matter. The same was true of Gordon's gags. Mr. Brown had obviously been told to smile a lot to counter the impression the public had that he was permanently miserable, but he should have resisted the temptation; or at least smiled only when he was actually amused, as he seemed to be smiling at almost everything for the whole ninety minutes of the broadcast. And his smile only makes him look worse. It is a kind of leer straight out of the graveyard.
The overall impression of the three men, therefore, was that they were all equally unimpressive, if not downright odd, which is a little disappointing given that one of them will be running the country in a couple of weeks. And the debate, so-called, consisted mainly of name-calling, even when it came to Afghanistan. The friends I watched the show with came away from it with their pre-broadcast intention to vote Liberal Democrat unchanged and I came away from it still planning to vote Labour, albeit with the reservations every intelligent person should have about a vote cast for any political party. But if that pattern was repeated in households across the country you can't help wondering what the point of it was.
If these men are the best this generation can offer to the country you can't help wondering what happened, either. Where are the firebrands? Where are the orators? Where are the ideals that drive men and women of conscience into public office? Whatever happened to the Foots, the Benns, the Bevans, and yes, the Thatchers (much as I loathed her)? David Cameron doesn't even have the style to be crazy, like she did all those years ago, as she stomped around ripping our country to pieces.