On Friday, 5th September, Radio 4's long-running, live political-panel programme, Any Questions? found its temporary home at Westonbirt School. I was one of a few local Green Party members who took up the invitation to attend. The hall was packed to hear the panel of Caroline Lucas (Green), Michael Dugher (Labour), Anna Soubry (Tory) and Roger Helmer (UKIP) answer questions submitted by the audience on the night.
As a regular listener to Any Questions? it was fascinating to get the 'behind the scenes' picture of how the programme is organised and to enjoy the 'warm up'. I was impressed to find that this excellent programme is run by a team of four people - producer and assistant and two technical bods, plus the public-facing Jonathan Dimbleby, of course. And to appreciate how Radio 4 segways seamlessly from the news in London to the outside broadcast location, wherever it happens to be in the UK.
But to the programme itself. The first two questions were about ISIL/ISIS - what would be the impact of air strikes and should British jihadists be allowed to return to the UK. On the first question, the other three panellists all spoke in favour of some level of military intervention, while Caroline argued that a settlement is likely to depend on regional political solutions, rather than military intervention, and we should be working to achieve a consistent (and hopefully ethical) foreign policy. She articulated really well the damage we have already done in the Middle East through military intervention, and the inconsistencies in our foreign policy - for example that we fund, supply arms to, and support Saudi Arabia despite its government beheading a group of Saudi citizens last week and it being a source of funds to terrorist organisations. She was the first to receive a round of applause for her answer and continued to receive by far the most positive response from the audience throughout the evening. On British jihadists, Caroline spoke of the importance of dealing with UK citizens in the UK, rather than trying to render them stateless, and put human rights and due process at the centre of her argument. She stood her ground when Michael Dugher suggested she was giving terrorists 'the benefit of the doubt' and it was clear to the audience that this was just an attempt at political point-scoring. A light moment occurred when Roger Helmer suggested that the European Court of Human Rights was somehow exacerbating the problem and Anna Soubry retorted that, as far as UKIP is concerned, if anything's a problem, just blame the EU.
Two further questions got on the air. The first was about the bill put forward in the Commons to mitigate the impact of the bedroom tax. Proposed by a Lib Dem, this was carried to second reading on a combined Lib Dem and Labour vote -the first time Lib Dems have voted against Government policy on the tax. Here, Caroline and Michael shared the moral high ground as Greens and Labour have opposed this heinous policy throughout. However, both Lib Dems and Labour were accused of electioneering (LDs with an eye to the General Election, Labour to the independence referendum in Scotland). At one point Caroline described the Conservative policy on the bedroom tax as cruel - this riled Anna Soubry who said she'd come into politics to help people, but Caroline came straight back with the response "Well, you're in the wrong party, then", which was appreciated by the audience. The last question, from a 15-year old schoolboy, asked whether more work should be done in schools to alert young people to the risks of abusive relationships and how they should respond to child abuse. Here Caroline scored again, as she is about to present a Private Member's Bill to make PSHE (Personal, Social, Health and Economic Education) mandatory in schools.
One Green Party member, Nicola Hillary, was called forward at the start of the programme to put her question, "Given the opulence of the surroundings tonight, isn't a £10 minimum wage, as suggested by the Green Party, the least we can do?" As she was number 4 on the list, I was sure she would get on air, and was dismayed when the producer held up five fingers and instructed the man with the microphone to bypass Nicola in favour of questioner 5, the young man asking about sexual abuse. So near and yet so far!
It was good to attend an evening of wide-ranging political debate and, though there was clearly a group of UKIP supporters somewhere in the room, it was obvious that the majority of the audience was firmly in agreement with Caroline Lucas.