So they had a debate in the UK: Better or worse than ours? Actually, both

Contenders for Britain's top job didn't call each other demented drug fiends. So, hey, at least there's that

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published June 27, 2024 1:39PM (EDT)

In this handout photo provided by the BBC, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer (L) and Prime Minister Rishi Sunak (R) debate on stage during the BBC election TV debate at Nottingham Trent University on June 26, 2024 in Nottingham, England. (Jeff Overs/BBC via Getty Images)
In this handout photo provided by the BBC, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer (L) and Prime Minister Rishi Sunak (R) debate on stage during the BBC election TV debate at Nottingham Trent University on June 26, 2024 in Nottingham, England. (Jeff Overs/BBC via Getty Images)

Things that are a lot like each other: The downbeat moods of the British and American electorates, faced with bitter political division, perceived national crisis and impending national elections that won’t solve any of that.

Things that aren’t like each other at all: The nature — and the duration! — of the election campaigns in the two countries, and the two pairs of major candidates vying to lead the Western world’s most storied democracies. (I could use scare-quotes around that last word, but at least for the moment, and for the sake of argument, I won’t.)

There was a debate on Wednesday evening, and while I have no ability to see the future, I’ll make the bold prediction that it bore little or no resemblance to the one CNN will host in Atlanta on Thursday night between Joe Biden and Donald Trump, people with whom you may be familiar (and of whom, quite likely, you are heartily sick). 

This one was in the English city of Nottingham, between Rishi Sunak, the Conservative Party’s almost-certainly-outgoing prime minister — a definite historical curiosity, as the first nonwhite person to hold that office and quite likely the wealthiest — and Keir Starmer, the anodyne, Clintonesque leader of the opposition Labour Party, who will almost certainly be the prime minister a bit more than a week from now. I know, right? One can only gaze across the pond in wonder and longing at the merciful brevity of a U.K. election campaign, which runs six weeks from start to finish. Does that mean I’m about to tell you that the Starmer-Sunak debate was a model of small-D democratic probity, decency and civility, and that we unwashed, unschooled, gun-crazed ex-colonials still have a lot to learn from Mother England? It does not.

OK, sure, maybe a little: To be fair, Sunak and Starmer did not accuse each other of being radical Marxists or fascists or white supremacists or “groomers,” nor of weaponizing the justice system, suffering from senile dementia or being on drugs. Although the onstage atmosphere in Nottingham was “spiky” and “shouty,” in the words of BBC commentator Laura Kuenssberg, and there’s clearly no love lost between these guys, they did not engage in personal attacks of any kind — unless you count accusing each other of dissembling about their policies and programs, which strikes me as well within accepted boundaries (and, in both cases, clearly true). 

Technically speaking, both British candidates are young enough to be Trump or Biden’s kids (although I don’t believe either of them is). Indeed, Rishi Sunak is 10 years younger than Hunter Biden. As for the drugs, given Starmer’s wooden, mumbling, committedly noncommittal performance, maybe his staffers should have dosed him with some. 

The most striking thing about the debate between Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer, at least from the point of view of a disgruntled Yank leftist (ahem), was how insignificant their differences appeared to be. 

That brings us, perhaps, to the biggest single difference between these trans-Atlantic scenarios: The outcome of the U.K. general election is seen as a foregone conclusion, after 14 years of largely chaotic and/or catastrophic Tory (i.e., Conservative) rule under five prime ministers — those would be David Cameron, Theresa May, naughty-schoolboy-gone-wrong Boris Johnson, couldn’t-outlast-a-head-of-lettuce Liz Truss and now Sunak — a post-Brexit economic crash made much worse during the pandemic, a migrant crisis on a larger and less controllable scale than anything the U.S. has witnessed, and a general sense of impending social or political collapse. For nearly half that era of Tory dominance, Labour veered sharply left under the leadership of unrepentant Bernie-style socialist Jeremy Corbyn, who was forced to quit after Johnson's massive post-Brexit election victory in 2019 and has since literally been expelled from the party altogether. 

Starmer spoke in bland, lawyerly generalities during Wednesday’s debate because, first of all, that’s who he is and what he does, but also because his only task is to remain standing through next Thursday’s election. (Yes, the British election is happening on the Fourth of July, and yes, many people on both sides of the Atlantic have noted the “ironic” coincidence, except that it’s really not ironic because it doesn’t mean anything.) One major British pollster has calculated the odds of the Tories holding their current parliamentary majority at 1 percent, and London bookmakers seem to think that’s optimistic. Washington Post reporters put down five-pound bets on both parties earlier this week: If Labour wins, their payout will be £5.15. If the Tories pull off a miracle, it’s £255.

Viewed from a pseudo-neutral perspective and judged purely on performance, Sunak had a strong debate: He was clear, forceful, energetic and relentlessly on-message, repeating over and over that Britons should not “surrender” their independence, their economy, their borders or their sons and daughters to the poorly-defined, tax-and-spend policies of Labour. He sounded a lot like a pre-Trump Republican presidential candidate, which is no accident: Sunak’s closest approximation to a winning strategy is to turn this election into an American-style contest of personalities, given that his opponent is pretty much a stiff. 

If anyone believed the Tories had a hope in hell, Sunak might have given them a shot. In the real world, he’s just hoping to limit the damage: In his closing statement, he actually said, straight into the camera, that he understood why voters didn't much like him or his party. Media pundits and pollsters are currently pondering how large a majority Labour will win in the 650-seat House of Commons, and at this point, anything less than 450 will be viewed as at least a mild disappointment. The Conservatives could fall from their current 365 seats down into double digits, almost certainly their lowest total ever and potentially not much more than Reform UK, the anti-immigrant party led by far-right firebrand (and Trump superfan) Nigel Farage.

So if this near-certain whopping victory by what is still generally considered a center-left party sounds like good news to American liberals burdened by nearly a decade of Trump-induced anxiety, I would like to temper that excitement just a bit. On one hand, the next chapter on the British right will almost certainly involve the ouster of Sunak and other so-called moderates and the final conquest of the Tory party by quasi-Trumpian radicals like Farage. On the other, the most striking thing about the Sunak-Starmer debate, from the point of view of a disgruntled Yank leftist (ahem), was how insignificant their differences appeared to be. 

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Both candidates agreed that uncontrolled immigration across the English Channel needed to be stopped, and all you can say about their policy proposals is that Starmer promises to be more humane than Sunak (who literally wants to ship unauthorized migrants to Rwanda). Both went startlingly deep on J.K. Rowling-style anti-trans “feminism,” arguing for “woman-only spaces” defined by biological sex, while differing on how stringently to enforce such things by law. No one in the BBC spin room after the debate even brought up this question, which seems to have become a widely accepted consensus view. 

Keith Brown of the Scottish National Party described the debate as a “great fraud on the public,” acidly observing that neither Starmer nor Sunak had mentioned Scotland (or Wales or Northern Ireland, the other problem provinces) or had uttered the words “Brexit” or “austerity,” the twin gargoyles that hang over this election. Brown was in a sour mood, since the SNP has been plagued by internal scandal and external crisis and its goal of a fully independent Scotland seems further away than ever, but he got off the best line of the evening: The Tories are going to lose, he said, but conservatism will still win. 

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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