Where nothing means what it says and no one says what they mean

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The Independent Online
WHO DEBATES best? The British have always been certain that debating is one of their 'best-in-the-world' things. Foreigners exchange wooden prepared speeches. But the British, we fancy, have sparkling exchanges in which opponents pick up one another's points and run with them like rugby three-quarters.

In the United States, there is a rising anxiety about whether debate is still possible. The Paris- based columnist William Pfaff, writing in the International Herald Tribune, thinks that true debate is dying out and being displaced by 'ideological confrontation and killer journalism'. Television people want a noisy row; press people want to hurry past the ideas and get to the sex.

Pfaff declares that 'the only useful debates are those that start out with a clear agreement on what the argument is about, and in which the opponent's arguments and person are paid respect'. But debates that carry too many wreaths of respect and clarity get no further than the cemetery. Nothing transforms a somnolent pseudo-debate faster than sudden, devastating personal rudeness. Anyone who has watched Christopher Hitchens on a television panel - king of shaft in that respect - may feel that until that moment he or she never knew what 'unmasking' really meant. Pious hypocrites turn purple and cough up their true agendas. Fatherly democrats confess their contempt for everybody and everything except money. Respect ends, and debate begins.

Many years ago, I was a political comrade of Jim Sillars, once MP for South Ayrshire and later for Govan. The most endearing thing about Jim was his optimism about other politicians, in spite of years of experience in the profession. How often I remember him facing up to some ominous audience seething with prejudice and shouting: 'This debate will not be conducted by a crude exchange of insults, but it will be carried through at the highest possible intellectual level]' And, in spite of the pandemonium of crudity which would then frequently break out, Jim never lost his faith that the next meeting would be a feast of golden oratory and clashing rapiers of pure reason, in which noble minds would expound and test each argument in Socratic competition until the truth dawned irresistibly over every human being in the hall. I do not mock that faith. I envy and respect it.

But William Pfaff is right to say that real debate is rare and growing rarer. It requires genuine curiosity in the participants; the capacity to be convinced by another's argument. And, as Pfaff points out, a debate must at least start with some agreement on what is being debated. On both these points, debate in Britain is suffering from the diseases he registers in America. In Parliament and on television, closed minds dance through an irrelevant ballet of self-promotion ('I happen to think . . .', or 'With the greatest possible respect . . .') which is no closer to genuine discussion than a kipper is to a free-swimming herring.

I can think of several so-called 'Great Debates' in recent history which amounted to no more than the distribution of government propaganda and its ritual rejection by the Opposition. (One exception was the discussion over Maastricht, because the split within the Conservative Party got out of control and engendered real arguments about real options. When it was over, the British public actually knew more about the treaty and its implications than the public in Germany or France - a rare moment]) In most of those exchanges, the two sides simply ignored each other's reasoning and used the opportunity to trumpet their own views on other subjects. They reminded me of dialogues between Western journalists and officials in Communist Czechoslovakia. Question: 'Will there be a relaxation of censorship?' Answer: 'It is true that our sugar-beet harvest rose by 30 per cent this year.'

The 'back to basics' affair has been all too typical. It is easy to say that the 'B2B' slogan was so vacuous that there was nothing in it to debate. But this was a serious and quite elaborate project. The trouble was that neither side was interested in a real, worthwhile investigation of what was being proposed, and that there was no agreement whatever on what the argument was about.

This failure to debate had two roots. The first was the Government's dishonesty about what its true motives were. These had little to do with either 'back' or 'basic'. Instead, the slogan concealed a plan to move forward into a new and sophisticated pattern of authoritarianism. A binary model of society - deserving majority, undeserving 'underclass' minority - was to be accepted as desirable. This model was to be entrenched by a combination of state coercion and mental drilling. Prisons were to be built and the rights of defendants dismantled, while the band played a hymn to Retribution as the new guiding principle of justice. That would keep the 'underclass' in its place. Meanwhile schools would also go binary, segregated into deserving academies and no-hope chalk-pits. Teaching in them would be narrowed to encourage official selections from English literature and English history, and to discourage exploration beyond them.

That was the real, inner agenda. But the Government refused to debate it in those terms. In the same spirit, right-wingers at the Tory conference at Blackpool in October added their fatal appeal for traditional family values to the B2B package without disclosing their real arguments for those values. For the public, 'back to basics' was marketed as a revival of good old brown-bread decency. But for the initiated, it was a daring leap forward into the new authoritarianism. It set a deliberately double standard. It asserted that if 'one of us' - one of those holding authority - lapses from traditional morals, the consequences are not widely harmful as long as he or she is not found out. But when the millions out there do the same thing, it means something quite different. Common people have a duty of obedience to those set over them, and a massive defection from moral codes would be followed by a terminal loss of respect for constituted order . . . or in other words, for 'us']

Here began a ridiculous non- debate. John Major and his ministers argued for 'back to basics' on grounds they knew to be disingenuous. In return, the media used 'killer journalism' to demonstrate something irrelevant: that the Tory party and Cabinet included adulterers, fathers of abandoned babies and swindlers. As the Government did not dare to disclose its real retort - 'It matters when you do it, but not when we do it]' - the uproar bellowed on uselessly without producing one single intelligent exchange about the underlying issues.

And yet the British really are dazzling debaters - until the issues grow serious. Then a sinister conformity sets in: everyone knows his or her lines and declaims them, deaf to argument. The worst media crime today is to depart from the script, to change one's mind. I do not want people to roll blinded in the dust, like Saul becoming Paul. All I ask is for one person, in a public place, to say:

'I hadn't thought of that. Perhaps you are right.'