Cameron Shows Foresight in Election Debate Saga: sets his party up for victory

David Cameron’s proposal to hold only one seven-party TV debate prior to the May General Election has been met with derision by his political opponents. This is not surprising given that the other parties’ best hopes of covering their own policy flaws is through carefully-orchestrated attacks on Cameron during a live debate. Cameron, meanwhile, has made and reasoned and sensible decision.

Source: BBC


TV debates are rarely easy for the incumbent. As the focal point for all criticism, a leader will often look as if he is floundering simply because the majority of attacks are aimed at him. Challengers, meanwhile, have the benefit of hindsight to dismiss every policy move made by the present government, creating an impression of strength and foresight.

Quite simply, TV debates often hinge on such unimportant factors as appearance, charisma and luck. A skilled politician may have all these things but they are not essential to ensuring good governance. In a few minutes, a political campaign can be broken by an off-the-cuff remark, an untimely bead of sweat or an unfortunate grimace. Cameron knows this and he is wise to try and stay clear of something that – for no political reason – can only hurt him.

The USA popularised the televised political debate and it was during its first incarnation during the Presidential Election of 1960 that its pitfalls immediately became apparent. Incumbent Vice-President Richard Nixon took a hammering against the up-and-coming Democratic nominee, John F Kennedy. What turned the public against Nixon during the debate was not so much his policy points but his appearance. Looking gaunt and unkempt after a gruelling campaign and a bout of illness, Nixon appeared weak in comparison to the well-rested, good-looking Kennedy. Most commentators see the debate as the turning point in the outcome of the election.

Wiping the sweat away: the heat of TV got to Nixon in 1960
Wiping the sweat away: the heat of TV got to Nixon in 1960

Another infamous example came during the 1980 election campaign when Ronald Reagan used a series of charismatic put-downs to undermine the credibility of incumbent Jimmy Carter. Granted, Carter did not help himself by declaring that he had discussed nuclear policy with his prepubescent daughter. Yet, Reagan still humiliated Carter. In response to a barrage of criticism regarding his Governorship of California, Reagan merely sighed and said: ‘there you go again’. With a casual and humorous retort, Reagan had made the audience immediately forget Carter’s attack and the President was made to look like a child himself such was the nature of the admonishment.

TV debates also favour the outsider, particularly if more than two parties are present. Independent Ross Perot caused a stir after an impressive TV performance during the 1992 US Presidential Election. Nick Clegg, a man since proven to be devoid of ideas or leadership quality, achieved a similar spike in popularity for the Liberal Democrats following the first TV debate in the 2010 UK General Election.

Many people voted for Clegg in 2010 because of his performances during the debates and yet such is the disappointment in his subsequent political efforts as part of the coalition government that the Liberal Democrats are no longer the UK’s third most popular party. Indeed, they could conceivably finish sixth in May.

The stock of Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats has fallen drastically since 2010
The stock of Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats has fallen drastically since 2010

TV debates in no way reflect reality and they rarely have anything important to say in terms of policy which is, essentially, what people should be voting for. Cameron has rightfully calculated that his opponents are devoid of any significant policy initiatives and that they merely want a series of debates so that they can attack his record, whilst simultaneously making wild promises which they would never honour once in power.

In outlining his proposal, Cameron has made this General Election about policy and accountability, not bluster and negativity. He is an incumbent unwilling to relinquish his throne before the eyes of the nation.

Rio de Janeiro Turns 450: a Portuguese City that the French Arrived at First

The inhabitants of Rio de Janeiro have been celebrating the 450th anniversary of the city’s founding by Estacio de Sa. Whilst Brazil’s history is inextricably linked with that of its former colonial master, Portugal, it was the French who first created a permanent European presence in the Rio area.

A giant cake has been at the centre of Rio's anniversary celebrations
A giant cake has been at the centre of Rio’s anniversary celebrations

In 1555, Nicolas Durand de Villegaignon established the colony of France Antarctique on the island of Serigipe in Guanabara Bay, just offshore from present day Rio de Janeiro. A Catholic – albeit a far from devout one – Villegaignon’s colonists were made up of a mixture of Catholics and Huguenots, the latter seeking to escape religious persecution back in France. Sponsoring the expedition was Gaspard de Coligny, himself a Huguenot convert and leader during the French Wars of Religion.

Both the French and the Portuguese had already traversed much of the Brazilian coast – some merchants and fishermen probably prior to Columbus’ voyage of 1492 – and had made contact with the native Tupinamba people who populated the dense rainforest off Guanabara Bay.

The Tupinamba's cannibalistic rituals - whilst exaggerated - fascinated European readers
The Tupinamba’s cannibalistic rituals – whilst exaggerated – fascinated European readers

In 1557 the struggling colony was replenished by a shipment of Calvinist colonists from Geneva, in addition to more French Catholics. Unsurprisingly, given the religious discord between its various emigrants, France Antarctique was far from a success and Villegaignon proved himself to be a weak and tyrannical ruler. He eventually expelled the Calvinists to the mainland where they were forced to live among the Tupinamba, before he turned his back on the colony in 1558.

It was not until 1560, five years after the foundation of the colony, that the Portuguese Governor-General of Brazil, Mem de Sa, sent a military force to expel the French who, according to the Papal-sanctioned Treaty of Tordesillas, were encroaching upon Portuguese sovereign territory.

Despite overwhelmingly superior numbers and equipment, it took the Portuguese seven years to destroy the French colony, by which time Rio de Janeiro had already been established. As they had in Canada in the 1530s and 1540s, and in Florida in the 1560s, the French had failed to upset the Iberian monopoly on New World colonies in the 16th century.

Yet in the case of Brazil they at least left an interesting legacy of early contact with pre-Columbian peoples. Jean de Lery, a Calvinist who had been expelled from France Antarctique, would write one of the first true ethnographies, based on his encounters with the Tupinamba. His History of a Voyage to the Land of Brazil would make a great contribution to early South American history and was often devoid of the proselytizing that characterised many of the Catholic works of the period.

Villegaignon Island - the former France Antarctique - now home to Brazil's Naval School
Villegaignon Island – the former France Antarctique – now home to Brazil’s Naval School

As Rio’s population celebrates its historic links to the early Portuguese explorers, it would be interesting to discover how many people know of their city’s older, if less significant, French connection.

Further Reading

Eriksson, J. (2009), “Travelling savage spaces: Jean de Léry and territorialisations of ‘Antarctic France’, Brazil 1555-60” in K.G. Hammarlund (ed.), Borders as Experience, pp. 68-91

Léry, J. (1992), History of a voyage to the land of Brazil

Lestringant, F. (1991), “The Philosopher’s Breviary: Jean de Léry in the Enlightenment”, Representations, Volume 33 (Special Issue), pp. 200-211

Lestringant, F. & Blair, A. (1995), “Geneva and America in the Renaissance: the dream of a Huguenot refuge 1555-1600, The Sixteenth Century Journal, Volume 26(2), pp. 285-95

McGrath, J. (1996), “Polemic and history in French Brazil, 1555-1560”, The Sixteenth Century Journal, Volume 27(2), pp. 385-397

Nowell, C.E. (1949), “The French in Sixteenth-Century Brazil”, The Americas, Volume 5(4), pp. 381-393