Full episode of BBC Question Time broadcast on 11th December 2014.
The panelists in the studio in Canterbury, Kent included Penny Mordaunt MP, Mary Creagh MP, Nigel Farage MEP, Russell Brand and Camilla Cavendish.
I’ve just got home from recording bbc tv’s political debate show Question Time and if you saw it and found it anti-climactic, I know how you feel.
Nigel Farage in the flesh, gin blossomed flesh that it is, inspires sympathy more than fear, an end of the pier, end of the road, end of days politician, who like many people who drink too much has a certain sloppy sadness. Camilla Cavendish who I was sat next to, seemed kindly and the two politicians from opposing parties, that flanked Dimbleby melted into an indistinguishable potage of cautious wonk words before I could properly learn which was blue and which was red. For my part I sat politely on my hands, keen to avoid hollering obscenities after a week of hypocrisy accusations and half-arsed, front page controversy.
Only the audience inspire passion or connection. Humanity. The usual preposterous jumble that you see in any of our towns, even if groomed and prepped by Auntie, they comparatively throb with authenticity opposite us, across the shark-eyed bank of cumbersome cameras.
The panelists have been together in “the green room” chatting, like before any TV show, and that’s what QT is, a TV show, a timid and tepid debate where the topics and dynamism of the discussion are as wooden and flat as the table we gamely sit around.
There is a practice question prior to the record, so the cameras can position and mics can be checked and the audience can practice harrumphing. In my dressing room at the modern Kentish theatre, before my sticky descent, I can hear them being prepped “ask questions, quarrel, applaud, keep those hands up”.
The practice question is a soft ball rhubarb toss about clumping kids or something and even though I’m determined to concentrate like a grown up, my mind drifts back to the Canterbury Food Bank I visited before arriving, partly to learn about it, as a researcher told me there might be question on them and first hand knowledge would make me look good, and partly because, y’know, I actually care.
In a warehouse in a retail park Christians and sixth formers assemble bags of what would rightly be considered “staples” in a kinder world. Tins of food and packets of biscuits and it’s good that we’re near to the “White Cliffs of Dover” because it feels like there’s a war on and the livid coloured packaging goes sepia in my mind as Dame Vera scores the melancholy scene.
The Christians are as Christians are, kind and optimistic. The donations come from ordinary local folk “We get more from the poorer people” says Martin, a quick deputy in a cuddly jumper. “More from Asda shoppers than Waitrose.” As I contemplate cancelling my Ocado (or whatever the fuck it’s called) order Chrissy, the lady who runs the scheme says that this year people who received packages previously have now donated themselves. Previous recipients often volunteer an all. Here older folk and the students diligently box off the nosh and I determine to give them and their heartening endeavor a shout out on the show and my writhing, nervous gut begins to settle.
Chrissy explains how the Canterbury Food Bank has brought people together, not just those it feeds but those who volunteer. “It seemed like a good way to worship Christ” she says. Martin, who I am starting to gently fall in love with, observes that supermarkets profit from the enterprise as Food Bank campaigns encourage their customers to spend more there. “Do you think there’s an obligation for the state to feed people?” I ask “or room for a bit more Jesus kicking the money lenders out of the temple type stuff?”
Many who use their facility are people that work full time and still fall short, others have suffered under “benefit sanctions”. “They’re very quick to cut off people’s benefits these days” says Martin.
“People think that Canterbury is affluent, but all around us are pockets of the hidden hungry”. The hidden hungry. “I’m gonna use that” I tell him as I scarper. He makes a very British joke about charging me as I get in the car and I tell him I nicked some jammy dodgers, and we laugh so that’s alright.
I think about the hidden hungry as I settle into my QT chair and get “mic’d up”. Farage entered to a simultaneous cheer and jeer, they cancel each other out, like bose headphones and leave an eerie silence. David Dimbleby says something about it being panto season and someone in the audience says “oh no it isn’t” and I love him for it, even though I’m pretty sure he was one of the UKip cheerers.
And a pantomime it is, well not so entertaining, no flouncing dames or doleful Buttons or rousing songs, just semi-staged tittle-tattle and bickering. The only worthwhile sentiments, be they raging or insightful come from the audience, across the camera bank. The man who brings up politicians pay rises, the man who demands I stand for parliament (so that he could not vote for me judging from his antipathy), the mad, lovely blue hair woman who swears at everyone, mostly though the woman who says “Why are we talking about immigrants? It’s a side issue, this crisis was caused by financial negligence and the subsequent bail-out”. This piece of rhetoric more valuable than anything I could’ve said, including my pound-shop Enoch Powell gag. More potent than the one thing I regret not saying because time and format did not permit it. That the people have the wisdom, not politicians, that the old paradigm is broken and will not be repaired. That the future is collectivised power. Parliamentary politics is dead, they, it’s denizens, wandering from aye to neigh from Tory to UKip know it’s dead and we know it’s dead. Farage is worse than stagnant, he is a tribute act, he is a nostalgic spasm for a Britain that never was; an infinite cricket green with no one from the colonies to raise the game, grammar schools on every corner and shamed women breastfeeding under giant parasols. The Britain of the future will be born of alliances between ordinary, self-governing people, organised locally, communicating globally. Built on principles that are found in traditions like Christianity; community, altruism, kindness, love.
In the “practice question” Farage says it’s okay to hit children “it’s good for them to be afraid” he said. There is a lot of fear about in our country at the moment and he is certainly benefiting from it. But the Britain I love is unafraid and brave. We have a laugh together, we take care of one another, we love an underdog and we unite to confront bullies. We voluntarily feed the poor when the government won’t do it. These ideas and actions that I saw in the food bank and across the camera bank are where the real power lies and this new power is the answer, no question about it.
Russell’s documentary challenging the ‘war on drugs’ premieres on BBC3 Monday 15th December
BBC Newsnight 23rd October with Evan Davis