'Great issues of the day' debated under dome of St Paul's

22 February 2013

DEMOTIX/PA

Debate: the Question Time participants (left to right): Giles Fraser, Lord Heseltine, Diane Abbott, David Dimbleby, Vince Cable and Peter Hitchens

Debate: the Question Time participants (left to right): Giles Fraser, Lord Heseltine, Diane Abbott, David Dimbleby, Vince Cable and Peter Hitchens

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 Paul's Cathedral.

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 church".

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 Huhne.

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