LONDON – It was the dawn, one writer said, of “the American age in British politics.”
For the first time in this country’s history, the candidates for prime minister squared off in televised debates Thursday, adding a bit of presidential-style zing to what is shaping up as the closest election in a generation. Election day is May 6.
For 90 minutes, the three men in dark suits and white shirts made their pitches, live and uncensored, for why they deserved to lead the nation. They sparred over the economy, they talked tough on crime, they tried to outdo one another in their admiration for British soldiers in Afghanistan.
And when they finally shook hands, they could be satisfied that no one had made a big gaffe. But no one had landed a knockout punch either.
Still, it was a momentous occasion for a political culture steeped in so much tradition, handed down over centuries, that any innovation is cause for hand-wringing and alarm.
So when the three candidates took their places behind their lecterns, in a studio setup so minutely planned by the three political parties that it required 76 rules to explain it, the nation held its breath.
Would Gordon Brown, the incumbent prime minister from the ruling Labor Party, shed his image as a dour fellow unable to connect with his fellow Britons? Would David Cameron, the Conservative Party leader, show off his youthfulness and telegenic side to best advantage? And would Nick Clegg, head of the smaller Liberal Democrats, finally emerge from his third-party obscurity?
In two snap polls taken directly after the debate, viewers gave Clegg the highest marks.
The real winner for some viewers was the electorate, who finally had a chance to hear their would-be leaders talk less in sound bites and more in complete sentences.
“It’s very much something that was very necessary,” said Tom Mermagen, 41, a fund manager who watched the debates with his wife in their south London home. “It’s very good to hear what they have to say.”
It didn’t happen without some resistance.
The British political establishment had resisted the idea of live TV debates for years, sniffily insisting that, unlike American elections, theirs were won on the basis of policies and ideas, not personalities.
The stakes were high for all three men. Brown, who has been trailing in the polls for months, was hoping for a chance to look prime ministerial and to emphasize his role in helping Britain to weather the worldwide credit crunch and to emerge tentatively from recession.
His main challenger, Cameron, tried to capitalize on the exhaustion many in this country feel after 13 years of Labor in power.
It was Clegg, though, who probably stood most to gain. As the leader of a third party, one that has struggled to make inroads against the two major parties, he finally had a chance to introduce himself to the British public in the most sustained stretch of national coverage he’s ever received.