From the Mass Platform to TV debates- a brief history of politics in public
David Cameron and Ed Miliband have appeared, though not together, on Channel 4 to launch some element of pre-Election debates.
As might be expected the media framework for the current dispute about whether there will be TV Election debates before the UK General Election on May 7th and if so, who will take part, stretches no further back than the US Presidential TV debates which go back to 1960 and are now organised independently of both politicians and TV companies.
In reality however the context for political debates between leaders and the format they take place in goes back to the arrival of mass politics in this country- broadly speaking in the first decades of the nineteenth century.
Indeed arguably the first appearance of what was known as the mass platform in British politics- political leaders and crowds to hear them- was at Peterloo in Manchester in August 1819.
Radical leader Henry Hunt planned to address a large open air audience in the campaign for the vote. The local Magistrates and Yeomanry on horseback had other ideas and the meeting was dispersed with numbers dead and injured.
Following that the Six Acts of 1819/20 clamped down on more or less any form of public political debate.
However the age of the railway, factory and printing press, meant that efforts to restrict public discussion were doomed.
The Chartist movement with leaders like Fergus O’Connor and Bronterre O’Brien continued the tradition of large scale open public meetings. Perhaps the most famous- because it was captured on photograph- was the Chartist protest for the vote at Kennington Common on Monday 10th April 1848.
The photo clearly shows a range of speakers addressing the crowd from platforms around the Common.
In these types of gatherings the ‘Gentleman Leaders’ who spoke were important but so were the crowds and what they might do when the speeches had finished- riot for example.
Official politics moved to control matters from the mid nineteenth century. Open spaces like Kennington Common were fenced off and the new police interrupted those attempting to hold unauthorised meetings in public. This may sound rather familiar to those engaged in campaigns to defend the right to protest and assemble today.
The platform moved in doors to large meeting halls where tickets were sold. The politicians who addressed these gatherings- the Liberal Gladstone for example- became well known national public figures.
The radical and labour movements while still holding open air events also adopted the idea of the indoor mass meeting.
Of course the numbers who could be directly addressed by such a format was small, but newspaper reports spread the word further.
From the 1950s this changed again. The advent of radio and then TV and the ability of many to be able to at least hire sets from the 1960s meant that politicians could now address millions directly from a studio.
The impact was further to shift the balance towards a charismatic politician and away from the crowd who had now become an audience who had no active role but instead, it is hoped consume a political message.
In recent times the emphasis has been on how effective leaders are at communicating a message. A TV debate is a rather different arena from a public meeting where one can judge audience reaction immediately.
Political debate has become more controlled and organised and less unpredictable then. One thing however that has rarely if ever happened historically is a political leader passing up their chance to make their point, as David Cameron apparently plans to do this year.
Perhaps he longs for the time before the 1832 Reform Act when such engagement was not thought necessary.
A version of this post has appeared in the Morning Star