This edition of BBCQT came from Leeds, with Anna Soubry MP (Conservative), Charles Kennedy MP (Lib Dem), Lucy Powell MP (Labour), Natalie Bennett (Green party leader) and Ian Hislop (editor of Private Eye/team captain on HIGNFY) on the panel.
Question 1: In an increasingly uncertain world, is it reckless for the government not to commit to a real terms increase in defence spending?
[Note: This is one of those questions where I always hope the panel will pick it apart, and pour absolute scorn on the idea that there is *increasing* uncertainty in a world where global communication is now possible and historical documentation more accurate that ever before. But no such luck.]
Dimbleby gives the context that it was debated and rejected earlier today (12th March 2015) that defence spending should be pegged at 2% of GDP.
Lucy Powell says it’s a matter of “international security” and that the government should have committed to the 2%. George Osborne would bring in “colossal” cuts to front-line defence spending in the next Parliament. We should also all be concerned that there are plans to cut health spending to levels before the Second World War, before the NHS existed.
Anna Soubry points out that Labour have not committed to the 2% either, and “on that we are the same”. The coalition has ensured we have good defence equipment and it will get even better. 2% is still the aim but they can’t make any promises.
Ian Hislop says the 2% isn’t the issue, “it’s what you do with” the defence budget in terms of not wasting money. The last two governments have been “catastrophic” in wasting money during equipment purchases. We have to decide a) what our armed forces are for and b) what we need to achieve it.
Soubry agrees that we need to decide what our armed forces are for. In her opinion, we should have intervened in Syria, but Parliament voted otherwise and she senses public opinion is against getting involved in further conflicts. We need then to determine what people want from their armed forces.
Natalie Bennett says Parliament has “recognised the will of the people” re: recent conflicts. The Green Party supports the coalition policy of cutting back the numbers in the armed forces, and wouldn’t go any further “with, of course, the exception of Trident nuclear weapons”, which we should get rid of.
Dimbleby challenges her on the point that the Greens wouldn’t go further, reading a list from a policy document of elements of the armed forces that they deem unnecessary, ending with “bases being turned into nature reserves” and the UK getting out of NATO. Bennett says that those are long-term goals built towards “democratically” and “over decades”; she is talking about the plans in the upcoming manifesto which are only looking at the next five years.
Charles Kennedy picks up on the Syria point; Soubry clarifies that she thinks it was a terrible mistake not to keep our options open, which is what the vote was on. Kennedy disagrees on that point and is in favour of maintaining 2% GDP spending on the armed forces.
Question 2: Opinion polls show that no party will win an overall majority. Would a Labour-SNP coalition be a betrayal of the millions of English voters?
[Labour leader Ed Miliband has since ruled out the possibility of a coalition with the SNP, but it was a widely speculated option at the time the question was asked.]
Anna Soubry says it would be “a betrayal to the whole of the United Kingdom”.
Lucy Powell says a coalition with the SNP has not been discussed, has not been planned and is not desirable. The Tories have launched this idea as a “desperate” attack and it’s a “smokescreen” for the PM to hide behind.
Charles Kennedy says “in a million years, it’s not going to happen”. The two parties hate each other and have no common ground to work with. He predicts a minority government as the most likely outcome of the election.
Ian Hislop says we’ll probably end up in a coaltion and the responsibility would fall on the politicians to do what is best for the country.
Natalie Bennett says the First Past the Post electoral system is the “biggest loser” and it shows the problems with tactical voting.
Question 3: Should the Metropolitan police have had to apologise to the families of the three girls who have gone to Syria to join ISIS?
Dimbleby clarifies that the Met had sent letters but they were hidden by the schoolgirls, and the Met has apologised for not ensuring the warnings reached their parents.
Ian Hislop says that, on this rare occasion, he has sympathy for the police. They can’t overly intervene without unfairly targeting Muslims, so in this case it was really up to the parents.
Charles Kennedy agrees, saying “I do not think you can expect the police [to carry out] that level of intrusion”.
Natalie Bennett says it’s right that it’s a criminal offence to be a member of ISIS. The police apologised for their ineffective method of communicating with the parents, and that is fair. But we need to see the wider context of three vulnerable girls feeling disillusioned enough to go off to Syria.
Lucy Powell says it’s good to see the police to quickly apologise for something they didn’t get right. This case has highlighted the dangers of internet grooming.
Anna Soubry says the big question is why people are feeling so disillusioned that they are signing up to ISIS, and agrees with an audience member who said there is a need to find a new expression of British Muslim identity.
Ian Hislop says we need to do more to refute the narrative of extremist preachers. An audience member challenges the idea that there are clear messages coming across; a main driving force is confusion and not believing in anything in particular.
The questioner says he thinks it’s absurd that the Commissioner had to personally deliver an apology for something the families should already have been well aware of; parents should pick up on any bits of gossip going around their children’s school and the idea that they wouldn’t have been aware of another pupil running away to join ISIS is ridiculous.
Question 4: Can the BBC afford to lose Jeremy Clarkson?
[Referring to the suspension of the Top Gear presenter after his ‘fracas’ with production staff.]
Natalie Bennett says it probably won’t surprise anyone to learn that she’s never watched Top Gear. The incident is subject to an inquiry, but given his track record “now would be a good time for him to move on”.
Ian Hislop says Clarkson threw a biro at him during an episode of Have I Got News For You, and refused to believe it drew blood, saying it was red ink around Hislop’s eye, but then apologised afterwards.
Charles Kennedy confirms the HIGNFY story. On the Jeremy Clarkson point, he quotes the end of Gone With The Wind: “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.”
Lucy Powell says Clarkson should get the sack. He’s already been proven to be sexist and racist, and now he’s been shown as violent.
Anna Soubry says all presenters are dispensable. With Clarkson it “is a real sadness” because he’s a great presenter, but he’s not above the programme.
It wasn’t a particularly great set of questions to work with, but the panelists all had time to get across their take on the topics and did so in a clear manner. The audience didn’t seem particularly convinced by anyone, though, and applause was rather muted.
It was the first time I’d seen Natalie Bennett and she got stick from all sides but dealt with the pressure well. It will be interesting to see what’s in the Green party manifesto for 2015 and sounds like their short-term aims are focused on engaging with the current situation.