UNDER Sir Christopher Wren's great dome, and beneath a rig of
dozens of lights, the "great issues of the day" were debated on
Thursday night, when the BBC's Question Time came to St
Introducing the programme, the presenter, David Dimbleby, said
that the Cathedral was "primarily a place of worship, but often
used as a place to debate the great issues of the day".
Among the panellists was Canon Giles Fraser, who resigned as
Canon Chancellor of the Cathedral in October 2011 over the
Chapter's handling of the Occupy protest (
News, 28 October, 2011). He had noted before the recording that
it was the first time that he had returned to the Cathedral; he
wrote on Twitter that he had a "knot in my stomach", but concluded
afterwards that it had been "fun".
Among the panellists was Peter Hitchens, a columnist for the
Daily Mail who, Mr Dimbleby suggested before the
broadcast, "rather enjoys a pantomime boo when he comes on". It was
ventured that the absence of such a greeting might be "an effect of
The effect of the setting was perhaps most evident in the
quality of the acoustics - every speech was amplified to perfection
- and the panellists' ready recourse to claims about "morality".
Both G. K. Chesterton and David Hume were quoted during the debate.
Lord Heseltine might have wished for slightly inferior
sound-quality when, 48 minutes in and during his detailed
explanation of the Government's economic strategy, his phone rang
loudly from his top pocket. It was, Canon Fraser observed after
craning his neck, Lady Heseltine: "You've gone off message!"
Canon Fraser's own comments on the Government's economic
policies suggested that the cause of the Occupy protesters remains
close to his heart.
"If it is the case that it's people in the Square Mile who are
largely responsible, yet the people who are going to pay the price
for that are actually the poor and vulnerable . . . there is just,
independent of the economics, a fundamental moral problem with that
equation," he argued.
This did not go down well with Lord Heseltine, who countered:
"This morality issue sticks in my craw. The idea that those of us
who are on the right, making tough decisions are immoral whilst
those on the left of politics have got a sort of God-given message
that makes them apart . . .
"The people paying the taxes in work shouldn't expect to sustain
the living standards for people on the welfare benefit. . . That is
a moral issue."
Asked about George Osborne's economic forecast, Canon Fraser
suggested that "the numbers don't add up." The Government was
"garrotting our economy with austerity", when it ought to be
investing in infrastructure. Dr Cable, the Business Secretary,
defended the government strategy of allowing the economic deficit
to widen. It was "the sensible Keynesian thing to do", he said
Canon Fraser later wrote on Twitter that Dr Cable's remark was
his "takeaway" from the evening. The idea that the Chancellor might
be a Keynesian surprised even the inscrutable Mr Dimbleby.
Much of the programme - around a quarter of the running time -
was spent discussing Heather Frost, an unemployed mother of 11 who
is set to move into a £400,000, six-bedroom council house. The
panel was asked whether this was "an example of society looking
after those in need or a waste of taxpayers' money".
Dr Cable said that Heather Frost's treatment by the popular
press was "outrageous".
Canon Fraser said that that it was "scandalous that we are using
the example of this woman as sort of propaganda for benefit cuts.
We are being softened up by examples like this that there is some
sort of distinction between the deserving and the undeserving
poor." The "real scandal" was occurring in the housing market, and
in the lives of poor people - particularly in London, which was in
danger of becoming like Paris, where the poor were consigned to
living outside the city.
Ms Frost was given a spirited defence by a case worker who
described hers as "another story used to demonise people on
benefits, who have now become public enemy number one".
Canon Fraser clashed several times with Peter Hitchens, who is
also a member of the Church of England. By the end of the evening,
Mr Hitchens had forecast a "national decline" that would continue
"as we sink to a lower level in the world".
After Mr Hitchens suggested there should be a new qualification
for being selected for jury service, Canon Fraser replied: "If you
have to be clever or posh or have a house, I think that
fundamentally undermines a basic principle of justice, upon which
we, as the people of this country, judge each other in court."
The panel were also asked about recently released information
from the 2011 Census, which suggested that white British-born
people were now in a minority in London. Canon Fraser, an
"unashamed multiculturalist", said that "London was the most
wonderfully diverse place in the world," and revealed that his
surname was originally "Friederberg", as his father's family
arrived as Jewish immigrants.
With Twitter as ever divided on the performance of the
panellists - some asked Canon Fraser to stand for Parliament;
others cheered Mr Hitchens - there were rave reviews for one
contributor: Sir Christopher Wren. As the credits rolled, he was
listed under "set design".
Question Time is produced by Mentorn Media. The next edition
is coming from Eastleigh, seat of the former MP, Chris