Whatever your view of Britain’s vote for Brexit on June 23 last year, you have to agree some of its effects were catastrophic. Months of uncertainty in global financial markets. The encouragement of far-right populists across the world. The transatlantic broadcast career of Nigel Farage.
But perhaps its most demoralizing outcome came on Thursday evening, when ITV, Britain’s main commercial TV station, staged a two-hour political debate on the future of Britain ahead of its general election—without either of the two people who have a chance of running the country.
For the benefit of American readers, this is sort of a WWE election, where political combatants tussle, making well-rehearsed moves toward a pre-ordained result. Everyone (every pollster) knows the current Prime Minister Theresa May of the Conservatives is going to win, meaning she doesn’t have to engage in democracy’s more taxing activities, like appearing on television, or talking to any voters that haven’t been pre-vetted by the security services. Hard-left opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn of the Labour Party, in second place but around 15 points behind in the polls, views mainstream media as suspicious and frankly counterrevolutionary.
So what was meant to be a televisual political slugfest, where seven major party leaders battled it out (both May and Corbyn were invited), featured five people who most Britons probably couldn’t pick out from a police line-up.
For the uninitiated, they were: Paul Nuttall, leader of hard-right UKIP, pink, bald and upright like a sore pimple; Tim Farron of the centrist Liberal Democrats, a cheery chap who looks like he’s won a competition to be a politician for a day; Scottish first minister and Scottish National Party (SNP) leader Nicola Sturgeon, a grown-up dismayed to be sitting at the kids’ table; Caroline Lucas of the environmentally focused Greens, earnest and superior like your rich schoolfriend’s mother, and Leanne Wood, whose party actually campaigns for independence for Wales.
If viewers were feeling confused, they could’ve been no more than Nuttall, who occasionally referred to Leanne Wood as “Natalie” for no obvious reason.
Britons who managed to stick it out will have heard questions across a bewildering array of policy areas, from education to fisheries. But while only the first quarter of the debate was officially dedicated to Brexit, much of the rest eventually returned to the impact of the forthcoming departure from the European Union. As Lucas put it: “There isn’t a single question to which the answer for Paul Nuttall isn’t immigration.” Though while he consistently raised his desire to slash immigration, his four more liberal opponents rushed to defend it equally as often. None of them will ever get the chance to make that call.
And that—even more than Sturgeon’s occasional “what am I doing here” glances or Farron’s insistence that “I want to lead a country, I am determined to do that”—was the depressing bit. With May so secure of a strong result that she didn’t need to show up, the debate was a reminder that for many Britons, like these party leaders, their influence over the reality of Brexit will be shouted from the sidelines.