Philip Hobsbaum, who taught English at Glasgow University, once said to me, “The only difference I can see between Mr Heath and Mr Wilson is that they are both exactly the same.” Having puzzled over that remark for a few decades now, I finally got it, during the political leaders’ debate last Thursday. The smaller parties are refreshing because they each espouse an individual cause. But the traditional parties, the anonymous men in suits fighting for the centre ground, are hardly separated by a cigarette paper. You might say their positions on “austerity” differ, but only by degree. One party wants to pay off the debt quicker than another. It’s not quite the same as wanting to dismember the United Kingdom. I confess I fell asleep during the commercial break.
The panel of seven were asked four questions. Briefly, how are you going to eliminate the deficit, fund the NHS, control immigration, and give hope to the young? The best question was the last one, because it was the most open-ended, encompassing the challenges of getting an education, getting a job, getting a house, getting a pension. In other respects, this was not so much a political debate, as a work-shop for middle management. To spark a debate, you need to ask the right question.
I remember another debate. Ten years ago, in Baruch College in New York, two combative orators debated the motion “that the 2003 invasion of Iraq was necessary and just”. The debaters were George Galloway and the late Christopher Hitchens. Both speakers were compelling. They both had a remarkable gift, but their styles were different: Galloway, oratorical, rhetorical, intense; Hitchens, lower pitched, conversational, but no less mesmerising. Both had coherence, fluidity, and mastery of the brief. Their points of view were diametrically opposed, Hitchens for the war, Galloway against it. There was no love lost between the contestants. The encounter was bitter, bruising, and acrimonious. You can see the US audience, so used to politeness in public discourse, wondering if they can believe their ears. Mr Hitchens called Mr Galloway “a disgrace”, and Mr Galloway called Mr Hitchens “a slug”. Then it got personal.
Yet, for all the vituperation, the chairperson, Amy Goodman, never had any difficulty maintaining order. Mr Galloway and Mr Hitchens for the most part listened to one another in silence. Thus they were both able skilfully to debate what they were respectively hearing. I’m still not sure who, in terms of performance, won that debate; but at least there was a clear choice to be made.
So what question would I have put to the seven party leaders last Thursday? This:
How can we all get on together, without destroying one another, and the planet?
This is the seminal question for our time. You might argue that it has been a question for all time, but the reason why it is specifically our question is that it is only in our time that we have had the capacity to destroy both ourselves and the planet. Therefore we have ownership of, and responsibility for, this question. And yet we continually duck it. Something else happened on Thursday that made the leaders’ debate seem utterly parochial. Driving home in the early evening I heard on Radio 4 about the attack on Garissa University in Kenya. It was still breaking news but it was already clear that the number of fatalities was going to be very large. Back home, I switched on BBC 1 to catch the 6 o’clock news and was amazed that the news of the attack had been pushed down the schedule by a prolonged trailer for a televised event in Salford that was yet to take place.
Something comes to mind… something about rearranging the deckchairs on board the Titanic.