Never mind the bulldogs - let's talk about real life

That vital issues are not being discussed is bad enough; that we don't care enough to discuss them is the real calamity
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The Independent Online
The French do it better, of course. They don't just think with more style, but with more depth. Even your average Norman, thought by Parisians to be as unsophisticated and dull as one of his cows, can (and will, given half a chance) give you a learned dissertation on the fate of the inner city. They care more about public affairs, and frankly, they know more.

By comparison, we seem to know little about our own affairs, understand less, and care not at all. If the level of argument normally deployed in TV debates and the popular press is anything to go by, we may be entering the 21st century with the least well-informed electorate in Europe.

The differences are starkly illustrated by the behaviour of the medium least able to cope with complex argument - television.

French TV is highly competitive, and underfunded. In theory, it should be spending every minute attracting audiences with soap operas, American mini-series and quizzes. Yet this week alone, the TV schedules show three major TV programmes in prime time which are nothing but serious talkfests of the kind the French adore.

Sacha discute, the lightest of the three, dealt with the issue of the children of divorced parents for 90 minutes. Sacha took it seriously, wheeling in experts and quizzing the families in detail. That programme went out at 10.40 in the evening - comparable to our own Newsnight, but with twice the airtime. And with respect to Paxman and friends, the programme's host is so highly valued that he is reputed to be France's highest-paid TV personality.

There are even more heavyweight public affairs shows scheduled in prime time. Envoye Special is an investigative programme that runs between 9pm and 11pm and attracts large audiences. La Marche du Siecle is a two-hour discussion which this week focused on unemployment.

If this strikes you as a peculiarly uncommercial piece of scheduling, I should point out that Jean-Marie Cavada, the programme's host, is also the station's director. This is not a man likely to put a ratings loser on at ten to nine and let it run for two hours - every week.

Yes, the French are notoriously gabby, ready to talk the hind legs of a frog. But the point is that the French interest in public affairs is not the preserve of a small elite who read big newspapers.

The French explanation for our boredom with these big issues is that we are a nation of islanders interested only in football and sexual perversion. It may be true that we have become used to the intellectual fast food offered by TV and the tabloids, and are increasingly unable to cope with the political or civic equivalent of a decent meal. If so, then we are in danger of ending up with Kentucky Fried Chicken running our affairs. And the result will be that we will have no answer to some of the most important issues facing our people.

First, there has been no discussion, either before or during the election campaign, of the scientific or technological issues that rule our lives. Virtually every great shift in our human history has been attributable to a scientific discovery and its application by engineers. The printing press, the steam engine, the semiconductor, DNA, nuclear power - every one of these has changed the human race permanently and irrevocably. Yet we hear little of these issues or their 1990s equivalents.

Today, for example, there is no debate on genetic engineering, which will probably transform our diets and eating habits in the next decade, and will be infinitely more important than any passing concern about say, BSE or fish stocks.

The single most revolutionary piece of science is receiving no attention at all. It is responsible for the volatility of financial markets, for the shift of millions of jobs from Europe to the Pacific rim, for our relative uncompetitiveness in any industry that demands high levels of education from its workers; it is what makes a single European currency a virtual inevitability. The instantaneous digital transmission of information has put fiscal policy in the hands of multinational corporations.

The odd pop at Rupert Murdoch, or a promise to put computers in classrooms and to make the Internet available hardly matches up to the scale of the challenge. But surely we should be invited by our next government how to say we feel about these issues?

Secondly, we live longer, break up more often. Where will the 4.4 million extra homes needed in the UK come from? Will we build more on green-belt land? Or will we clog up our inner cities further with homes and offices? What will we do to prevent another spiral of rising house prices caused by the shortage of homes?

And third, the beast that has been lurking under every discussion of transport and the environment - what shall we do about the car? We love our own cars; but we'd like everybody else's off the road. A new government will have to confront these questions with dramatic measures. Yet beyond a few bland promises to review this, or to tax that, we hear little from the main parties, and certainly don't see a debate of the seriousness the crisis warrants.

Our ability to debate these issues is said by some to be hampered by the work of the spin doctors. I doubt it. Peter Mandelson, the archetypal spin doctor, is a man who studied politics, philosophy and economics, went off to teach in Tanzania, campaigned against youth unemployment, and sat on Lambeth council in its darkest days. Prince of Darkness may be a good gag, but it's significant that when he went to work in TV, Mandelson chose the most eggheaded, ascetic and demanding of programmes - Brian Walden's Weekend World. Not much sign of an instinctive bowdleriser there.

If we need to point the finger, perhaps it should be directed at the political class's fear that the public either does not want to or cannot understand these great issues.

In particular, we seem to believe that anything involving scientific or mathematical explanation will just make the voter's head hurt. If that is true, it is a calamity. In the modern world, where technology and science rule our lives, how can we make a serious choice if we cannot understand the issues involved, or choose not to? And if we the voters fail to make those choices positively, how can any government claim to have a mandate on the things that matter?

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