The TV leaders’ debate: channelling Sartre

More than The X Factor, it’s like Sartre’s No Exit in which three men locked away from the real world gang up on each other.

David Bowden

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Is Nick Clegg the British Obama? After his sudden surge in the polls, and his conscious echoing of Obama’s hopeful rhetoric, the question has been asked by some of Britain’s leading liberal commentators. The right-wing press, on their part, are asking if Clegg really is a dirty Spaniard. The answer is neither. But judging from the second leaders’ debate, broadcast live last night, it does seem like the UK’s political and media elites are channelling another unlikely historical figure: Jean-Paul Sartre

For those unfamiliar with Sartre’s 1944 play Huis Clos, the plot features three characters locked in a room (the common English title is No Exit), with only the occasional interjection of another faceless anonymous character. At first they assume they are to be tortured, but as the drama unfolds they turn on each other. As they take turns to manipulate, attack and gang up on each other it emerges that they have all died and the room they inhabit is a form of purgatory. The main instrument of torture is being left with only painful memories as the rest of the world carries on without them. At the play’s conclusion one of the characters voices one of the most famous anti-human phrases in twentieth-century literature: ‘hell is other people.’

Last night’s leaders’ debate, centred around international affairs, may not have had the same taut dialogue and philosophical depth as Sartre’s play, but it at least captured some of the bleakness of vision. Following the caginess of last week’s first act, where Brown and Cameron both flinched in the face of a mass audience and allowed Clegg to install himself as a possible contender, the gloves were truly off. Nick said David’s friends were all ‘nutters’, David said Gordon was a liar who ought to be ashamed of himself and Gordon – in an outburst of howling Sartrean existential despair – just wanted everyone ‘to get real’.

You could sympathise with the prime minister, because political reality was increasingly hard to come by over the course of the debate. Cameron reaffirmed his commitment to foreign military intervention in far-off lands in order to keep ‘Britain’s streets safe’. Brown reminded us that we need a nuclear deterrent to stop British-educated students from blowing up their underpants. Cameron said we needed to get past the scaremongering and politics of fear shown by New Labour, and that if we didn’t vote for him the economy was going to collapse. Brown insisted that the future of Britain’s energy lay in nuclear power, but failed to explain why his government hasn’t actually built any nuclear power stations.

Clegg, meanwhile, did his best to make sure the Liberal Democrats became a powerful new alternative by making it very, very clear that they were neither liberal nor democratic. On the thorny issue of Europe we were reminded that although the European Union is an anti-democratic behemoth with no clear political mandate, it is jolly good at catching paedophiles. The Lib Dems were against the ‘illegal’ Iraq War, but, apparently, we need to make sure we’re ready to go to war again if the UN says it’s okay. And immigrants should only be allowed to stay in the UK if ‘they speak English and play by the rules’.

As in last week’s debate, there was an awful lot of agreement. All three leaders agreed child abuse is very, very wrong and most certainly would not be encouraged under their government. They all quite liked the idea of the pope visiting Britain, but not being Catholic they disagreed with him on certain things (like science, ventured Dave). They’re for old people. They’re for young people. They’re not for foreign people. But ultimately we should not forget that there are ‘fundamental differences’ between them, such as whether we tighten our belts this year or next year. In this case one was reminded, not of miserabilist Sartre but of rakish John Mortimer: hell is not other people, but an eternal all-male, black-tie dinner populated by chartered accountants.

But what of these hellish other people, whom we used to call ‘the public’? They’re still locked in the worming room, being monitored by the spin doctors for signs of life or excitement. I watched the debate at London’s Frontline Club, where the media class was watching the political class appeal to the media class in the hope of second-guessing what the public were going to get tricked by.

Bronwen Maddox of The Times (UK) pondered whether Clegg’s announcement of atheism was a mistake. BBC World Service analyst Andres Ilves questioned whether Cameron really should have said he was ‘blown away’ while visiting soldiers in Afghanistan. The journalism students in the audience fretted that the right-wing media were going to stop the liberal resurgence in its tracks, and whether interviewer Adam Boulton was right to interrupt Clegg’s orgy of self-abasement over ‘cleaning up politics’ by mentioning the latest media-driven expenses scandal (neatly and quickly rebutted by Clegg, as it happens). That there seemed to be an absence of any recognisable political and policy difference in this three-horse race was only really questioned by foreign policy analyst Toby Dodge, who was quickly rebutted for being ‘too academic.’

The alternative translated English title for Sartre’s work, coincidentally, is In Camera. This is in reference to evidence heard in court cases in the absence of the jury. That is a fitting title for last night’s debate, too. The leaders of the main parties may be shown in high-definition close-up shots, but their actual politics seems a closely guarded secret.

David Bowden is spiked’s TV columnist.

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