Every political leader in Britain starts by saying they're going to move away from Punch and Judy politics. Gordon Brown did it when he became Prime Minister, going as far as trying to create a ministry of all the talents, regardless of party. David Cameron made a great virtue of his wish to be consensual wherever possible when he became leader of the opposition. And we all know what happened to that promise. At the first whiff of an election, we're back to the slanging matches with a real vengeance.
Which makes it a pretty dismal prospect for the voter if the general election is really not going to be held until next May or even June. But it makes it a poorer outlook for the country as well.
Adversarial politics are supposed to draw out difference and illuminate options. That's what the game is said to be ultimately about. But the extraordinary thing about the British party debate at the moment is that on virtually all the key issues there is no worthwhile difference between the two main parties. Indeed, the increasing concentration of public argument into a ding-dong between Labour and Tory is actually serving to reduce understanding rather than increase it.
This is not about the usual accusation that the two parties barely differ in their centrist thinking. They don't. On most specifics the two main parties are deeply divided in approach if not outcome. But on the big questions, where the discussion of alternatives is most important, the Tories and Labour are not so much consensual as positively determined to avoid them altogether.
Afghanistan is the most obvious case in point. Here we are embroiled in a war that more than half the population doesn't think our soldiers should be involved in, yet the battle between the parties has been over the number of helicopters available and the armour of the vehicles. You don't have to look very far to see why this is. The Tories sense the public disquiet but are desperate not to get drawn into a debate about objectives and strategy that might open them up to the accusation of failing to support our brave boys abroad, or going back on their original support for the war. And you have a government that is committed to the war because of its alliance with the US but can't bring itself to admit that it is no longer in charge of its own destiny there.
And that is held to be representative of the debate on the most fundamental question facing any country – war or peace.
It's no better when it comes to the economy, arguably the issue that most affects and disturbs the voter. At the moment there is a profound, and deeply uncertain, economic debate as to where to go next. Do we keep on reflating and printing money to prevent a double-dip or do we start pulling back from monetary expansion and counter-cyclical spending and seek an exit strategy?
Nobody can be sure that we are bottoming out or whether the so-called green shoots represent recovery or just a slowing-down of the rate of decline. But it means a hell of a lot in terms of how we deal with the immediate future through fiscal and monetary stimulus. And it means a hell of a lot in terms of what the ordinary citizen can expect in terms of his or her job prospects and savings.
But you won't hear any of that from the two main parties. Gordon Brown is too intent on avoiding blame for the years of excess to admit the constraints on action now, while the Tories are too bereft of any overall economic policy of their own to do more than argue over who is going to cut more of public expenditure and in what areas. This is an important question, no doubt, but it is not the real debate that we should be having now or one that is going to help the poor benighted public better understand their prospects for the future.
The poverty of discussion, the determined avoidance indeed of any real consideration of options, is even more obvious when it come to the biggest question of all facing the country now – just where does Britain stand in the world. We have been through a half-century of viewing our role through the prism of the transatlantic alliance, climaxing in the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan and a decade of spectacular success in Anglo-Saxon free-wheeling finance.
Now both are under question, or rather should be under question, here at home. You don't have to subscribe to Newsweek's cover story declaring "Forget the Great Britain" to accept that this is the time for a re-evaluation of our prospects and our place in the world.
We can't – and why? Because neither of the main parties dare mention the word "Europe". Labour wishes it would go away so as not to disturb its electoral prospects. The Tories want to embarrass Labour with it but know full well that anti-Brussels rhetoric leads all too easily to demands for withdrawal altogether. The result is a woolly Brown bleat about a Britishness that no one understands and few subscribe to.
And yet now is precisely the time we should be debating Europe. Most of the problems facing us, such as climate change, financial regulation and defence are clearly much better coped with – can only be coped with indeed – on a multinational, preferably regional, basis. The more we hang back, the less we will be involved in the development of those policies. At the same time, whether we like it or not, the EU is driving forwards with a new Irish referendum that will open the doors to greater integration. We will no longer be able to rely on constipation on the Continent to keep decisions away from us.
Of course Britain does have a third party – the Lib Dems – who can voice some of these concerns and do. All praise to them. But my fear is that not only are they being squeezed in electoral terms by the intensification of the two-party struggle but that they are, in turn, being driven to a kind of hit-and-run tactic, sniping at each of the main parties in turn, to keep in the game. Even the much-respected Vince Cable is not immune from the temptations of mouthing on about pay and bonuses at the expense of deliberating economic options.
If the British public were in a politically apathetic mood, the ping-pong of party insult might be understandable. But they are not. Many are deeply concerned at the direction of war, economics and the nation. It's only the politicians who seem unable to get serious.