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Leaders in Their Prime Debate Substance in Detail (No, Not in the U.S.)

LocalLeaders in Their Prime Debate Substance in Detail (No, Not in the U.S.)

Forty-eight hours before President Biden and former President Donald J. Trump clashed onstage in Atlanta on Thursday, the leaders of Britain’s two major parties, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer, went head-to-head in Nottingham, England.

To say their debates were different doesn’t begin to capture the Atlantic Ocean-sized chasm that separated them.

In content, tone and atmosphere, the British debate showcased two politicians in their prime, sparring over the issues — frequently heated, not without personal jabs, but focused on the policy nuances of taxes, immigration and health care. Neither Mr. Sunak, 44, nor Mr. Starmer, 61, brought up his golf handicap.

Britain and the United States are often viewed as operating under the same political weather system — the conservative turn to Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, the pivot to youth and the center-left with Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, and the anti-establishment, populist backlash that fueled Brexit and Mr. Trump. But this week’s back-to-back encounters showed how sharply these democracies have diverged, at least in this election cycle.

“These are two countries in very different places, with very different views of their place in the world,” said Kim Darroch, who served as Britain’s ambassador to Washington during the Trump administration.

“The tone between Sunak and Starmer was that of two profoundly earnest politicians,” Mr. Darroch continued. “Between Biden and Trump, it was barbed, it was nasty, it was childish, but it was not earnest.”

To some extent, that reflects the different nature of the candidates: Mr. Sunak, a one-time hedge fund manager, and Mr. Starmer, a former public prosecutor, are more technocratic, detail-oriented figures than Mr. Trump or Mr. Biden. Neither is known as a charismatic politician.

They also have little of the personal animosity between the 78-year-old Mr. Trump and the 81-year-old Mr. Biden. Both entered Parliament in 2015, and they scarcely knew each other until Mr. Sunak became prime minister in 2022.

But the different tone also reflects how British politics has moved on from the toxic divisions over Brexit. Eight years after Britons voted to leave the European Union, they have returned to more ordinary debates over taxes, spending, planning permits for housing, and how to cut waiting times in the overburdened National Health Service.

“Sunak tried early in the campaign to bring some American-style culture-war issues into the debate, but there was no appetite for it,” said Robert Ford, a professor of political science at the University of Manchester.

There was also a change in Britain’s political personalities. “Who was absent from that stage? Boris Johnson,” said Professor Ford, referring to the flamboyant prime minister who led the Brexit campaign and drew comparisons to Mr. Trump.

Mr. Johnson was ousted by his Conservative Party after scandals, including social gatherings held during pandemic lockdowns. His successor, Liz Truss, lasted only 44 days after her tax cut proposals ignited a backlash in financial markets.

“Our system seems to have healthier formal and informal mechanisms to get rid of leaders,” Professor Ford said. “With Biden and Trump, there are no obvious mechanisms to get rid of them,” aside from defeating them on Election Day.

When voters go to the polls in Britain on July 4, they are expected to oust Mr. Sunak’s center-right Conservative Party after 14 years in government, in favor of Mr. Starmer’s center-left Labour Party. The debate was viewed as one of Mr. Sunak’s last chances to avert a landslide defeat.

The prime minister drilled into arguments that the Labour Party would raise taxes and throw open Britain’s borders to immigrants. “Don’t surrender,” Mr. Sunak repeated several times to the studio audience (another difference with the debate in the United States, where there was no studio audience).

Mr. Starmer’s angry response that the prime minister was lying about taxes was the closest the two came to the blows traded by Mr. Biden and Mr. Trump. Otherwise, he earnestly laid out the party’s plans to build 1.5 million new houses, calling the lack of affordable housing the “tragedy of the last 10 years.”

There were plenty of critics of the debate. Some faulted Mr. Sunak for being unduly aggressive, bullying Mr. Starmer. Others said Mr. Starmer was unsteady, particularly on how he would try to curb the influx of asylum seekers crossing the English Channel.

The back-and-forth over taxes struck some as tedious. The writer Jonathan Coe compared it unfavorably to the games of the European soccer championship, which were being broadcast at the same time on another channel.

“Can I bear to spend another hour watching these people pointlessly kicking a ball backwards and forwards to each other, or should I turn over and watch the football instead?” Mr. Coe posted on X.

Televised debates, Mr. Darroch noted, are a comparatively recent American import to British politics; the first between contenders for prime minister were held in 2010. Unlike in the United States, where they can change the trajectory of a campaign — as many Democrats fear that Mr. Biden’s faltering performance will — debates rarely shift public sentiment in Britain.

For one, British politicians debate each other almost every week in the House of Commons. Mr. Sunak and Mr. Starmer have faced off dozens of times during Prime Minister’s Questions, a Wednesday ritual in which the leader of the opposition grills the prime minister, while journalists keep score.

“If you’re both good at debating, it becomes very tedious because no one is making huge gaffes,” Mr. Darroch said. “The British public is expecting a game of cricket, not too many low blows. We live in a grayer world of politics, compared to the Technicolor of the debates in the U.S.”

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