FP Explainer

Why Didn’t Britain Have Televised Debates Before Now?

Tradition and political gridlock.


Gordon Brown, Britain’s embattled prime minister, announced Tuesday that he will hold the country’s most hotly contested general election in a generation on May 6, four weeks from now. Before then, the Labour leader will face off in a contest of a very different sort: three televised debates against the heads of the two other major parties, the Liberal Democrats’ Nick Clegg and the Tories’ David Cameron. The debates — set for April 15, 22, and 29 — are the first such events in British history. Why only now?

Because Brown is desperate. In the British system, voters choose parties rather than vote for their leaders directly. So even though Parliament boasts a rich tradition of political debate dating back centuries, and serving prime ministers must face backbenchers’ impudence every week during Prime Minister’s Questions, candidates for the premiership have never before faced off on television.

Parliamentarians have actually requested televised debates for nearly two decades, but the parties never seem to be able to make them happen. In 1992, Labour requested a debate, but the Tories refused. In 1997, flailing Tory Prime Minister John Major thought a nationally viewed debate might be just the thing to defeat the charismatic, but young and inexperienced Tony Blair, who was game to do it. But the two camps never came to terms (whether to include the Liberal Democrats was a sticking point), and the event never happened. Four years later, in 2001, Blair was forecast to win the general election in a landslide and therefore declined to debate Tory leader (and noted wit) William Hague. Blair did so again in 2005.

What has changed this time around? Cameron and Clegg — both considerably younger and considered more silver-tongued than the maladroit Brown — publicly agreed to televised debates months ago. Awaiting Labour’s response, the country’s television networks decided to hold the debates with or without the prime minister. Now fighting a steep uphill battle for victory, Brown had little choice but to agree.

Labour, the Liberal Democrats, and the Conservatives worked out terms between themselves and three major television networks. The first debate, which takes place next Thursday, April 15, will focus on domestic affairs; the second on foreign policy and Europe; the third on the economy. The networks and parties have agreed to an exhaustive list of 76 rules — including No. 57 (at the end, everyone shakes hands) and No. 71 (the cameras cannot cut to the audience when the debaters are talking).

The debates will broadly resemble those in the United States. The moderator is there to moderate, but not to comment; each participant has a minute to answer a question and a minute to respond to the others’ answers. Half the debate will focus on the given topic, the other half on diverse subjects. The audience — apportioned at a strict 7 Labour to 7 Tory to 5 LibDem ratio — will be a group of locals resembling Britain in terms of age, race, and "social class." The audience cannot clap, but will be able to ask a few pre-approved questions.

Annie Lowrey is assistant editor at FP.