British Party Leaders Debate

Tonight ITV hosted the first televised debate between the leaders of Britain’s three major parties in the run-up to next month’s parliamentary elections. Prime Minister Gordon Brown and his foremost contender, Conservative foreman David Cameron attacked each other repeatedly while Liberal Democrat Nick Clegg tried to present himself as a fresh alternative to the traditional powers, promising to put “people before politics.”

As the politicians answered questions from the audience, the economy quickly emerged as a major point of contention with Brown defending his government’s policies and Cameron leading the charge against them. The Labour leader opined that it would be wholly irresponsible to cut on expenditures this year. “Private investment can’t do it alone,” he warned. “Pull out the money and you will have less growth, less jobs and less businesses.”

The Conservatives have more faith in the private sector of course and Cameron properly sided with businessowners who are struggling to keep their companies afloat in difficult times. If entrepreneurs can cut on expenses, he wondered, why can’t the government?

As Brown and Cameron continued to blame one another for supposedly not sharing all of the facts, Clegg bluntly opined that the Treasury is running out of money and that certain measures are unavoidable. He argued for a tax on banks and declared that Britain should not be replacing its Trident nuclear system any time soon.

Earlier this week, over at Kings of War, Rob Dover dissected the parties’ manifestos, describing the Liberal Democrats’ as both “sensible” and “distinctive” on defense. They rule out the “like-for-like replacement” of the Trident system; support multilateral nuclear disarmament and intend to cancel the Eurofighter Tranche 3B, which is an upgrade of the Typhoon design. Yet according to Clegg tonight, the military is also “underpaid and under equipped” and the government must do better.

Brown boasted in response that under Labour rule, military expenditures have risen dramatically. Cameron was not convinced. “I think it’s madness,” he said, “when you’ve got soldiers deployed overseas not to invest in your territorial army.” He called for a fundamental defense review to determine “the shape of our army, our navy, our air force” in the face of twenty-first century challenges. As Clegg put it, “the threats to this country are changing.”

But Brown nor Cameron agreed with him on not upgrading the Trident system. The latter wished not to surrender Britain’s nuclear deterrent while Iran may be developing a nuclear weapon. The former added the threat of North Korea while both their parties have found other ways to reduce costs.

The Conservatives want to cut defense spending with 25 percent and have a system of procurement that runs to time and budget. Labour seems mostly proud of past accomplishments which leaves its manifesto, in Dover’s words, “disappointing for the paucity of new ideas within it.”

The debate concluded with a discussion about health care. Again, Clegg seemed the only one to realize that drastic changes may be necessary although he refrained from elaborating on how exactly may be saved on the enormous expense that is the National Health Service. Brown and Cameron on the other hand both favored expanding it with the prime minister announcing specific proposals to improve care and Cameron priding himself on excluding the NHS from his many budget cuts. Brown begged to differ of course. “You can’t cut the deficits, cut taxes and provide extra money for the NHS,” he told him.

In his final remarks, Cameron advised voters not to accept what he described as the “repeated attempts to try to frighten you about the Conservative government.” He urged people to “chose hope over fear” and reiterated his commitment to “a bigger society.” After Brown threatened once more that the government can’t stop spending now lest the recession rage on, Cameron said that “the idea you have to go on wasting money to secure the recovery is simply wrong.”

As the country is likely to return a “hung parliament” in May, the role of the Liberal Democrats has suddenly become pivotal. Although Clegg leans more toward the right himself, his party appears to favor a coalition with Labour instead. He tried mainly to undermine Cameron therefore although the Liberal Democrats, he stressed, are a viable alternative to both major parties. Brown doesn’t seem to think that there are many voters to be won from the center for he almost exclusively targeted Cameron who, in turn, blamed Labour for today’s problems, leaving Clegg as an obvious outsider which is a status that may well turn out to appeal to Britons from across the political spectrum.