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TV debates are fairly new, but arguments about doing them are much older

4 min read

Televised leaders debate are a relatively new phenomenon in British general elections. But if it wasn't for Margaret Thatcher, we could have had our first nearly 50 years ago.

As the election approached in 1979, Thatcher sat down with her key advisers to discuss the possibility of taking part in a televised debate with the prime minister, Jim Callaghan.

Should she do it? The argument went back and forth. The clinching argument was made – albeit inadvertently – by Chris Patten. He thought Thatcher should take part in the debates and noted that if she didn’t, the BBC would be unhappy.

“Really?” she said. “How unhappy?”

“Very.”

“In that case,” she replied, “the answer is definitely no”.

At least that is the version told by Ronnie Miller, her speechwriter – who adds that they then all had a glass of champagne to celebrate upsetting the BBC.

Her decision in 1979 was significant. Had she said yes, we’d have had party leaders debates some 30 years before the first one eventually occurred in 2010 – and our experience since then has been that it is impossible to put the genie back in the bottle.

It was also a revealing decision because up until then, the pattern had been for the leader of the opposition to request a televised debate, and for the prime minister to refuse. The logic was clear: given the benefits of incumbency, why give your rival a platform and boost their status? But, behind in the polls, Callaghan had little to lose and agreed, albeit tentatively – only for Thatcher to be the one who realised she had more to lose.

As a report in the Sunday Telegraph more than a decade before had put it about similar negotiations, although “the discussions are being conducted between the parties in terms of high sounding constitutional principle (with substance in both arguments), they are basically concerned with tactical calculation of party advantage”. Those words could apply to almost every argument about the nature of debates since – and which explain both why the road to 2010 was such a long one and why the format of debates has been ever-changing since then.

In 1958, Granada – the pioneers of political television – organised a televised debate from the Rochdale by-election (yes, another one), the first by-election to be televised. It had mixed reviews. “Oh, what a bore it was,” declared the Guardian. “If it did no harm it cannot have done anyone much good.” But writing in the Daily Mail, Kenneth Allsop enthused: “The tele voter is born… now here is the proof that overnight Rochdale has changed the nature of democratic politics.” Television was the “new hub of the hustings”.

Five years later, Harold Wilson attempted to float the idea of a head-to-head debate with Harold Macmillan and would claim that Macmillan had accepted. But the same challenge to Macmillan’s successor, Alec Douglas-Home, produced a firm no. Home, aware of his lack of screen charisma noted: “I saw the Nixon-Kennedy confrontation. That cured me forever.”

Debates about debates – or what were then called “confrontations”, which perhaps is a more telling description – have also always struggled with the question of what to do with the “other” parties. In 1964, the Communist Party threatened legal action if their leader was excluded. At the following general election in 1966, Wilson formally agreed to participate in a television debate, but only if it was a three-way debate including the Liberals, which he knew would be unacceptable to the Conservative leader Edward Heath. He turned down Heath again in 1970.

Thatcher went on to reject offers from both Foot and Kinnock – telling the latter: “You find your own platform, I will not give you one." In 1992, Major similarly declined Kinnock, but by 1997 – in a fairly direct parallel with 1979 – Major could be less sniffy. Now it was Blair who had more to lose and, without ever saying they wouldn’t participate, Labour contrived to collapse the debates. Blair then turned down both Hague and Howard.

Since the Brown-Cameron-Clegg debates of 2010, only one major party leader has not taken part in at least one direct debate – Theresa May in 2017 – although arguments about the format have continued, ensuring relatively few one-on-one encounters. The debate between Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer on Tuesday night will be just the third head-to-head debate between the two main party leaders since Wilson first floated the idea over 60 years ago (the first and second being between Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn in 2019).

Advocating for TV debates back in 1974, Alastair Burnet, then editor of the Economist, said that “men talking intelligently to each other gives a much healthier impression of the political process than men shouting at each other around the country”. We suspect that may be a naïve view of tonight’s proceedings.

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