Morning Lemmings and welcome to Bizarro Time, a strange twilight netherworld of exterior opening shots, audience members wearing wristbands that made the whole affair look like a giant, penal Glasto, Dimbers referring to the venue as ‘The Scrubs’ (has he served time there?) and a complete lack of the Yellow Team. That’s right, this week’s Question Time comes to us from the bowls of the prison system and given the topical backdrop and panel, a right old to-do was to be expected. However, as I mentioned at the start this wasn’t so much Question Time as Bizarro Time and all is not quite what it seems. So Lemmings, let us firmly grasp the soap, strip down and head to the showers.
Ok, first up is Ken Clarke who has taken a break from his busy schedule of sticking his foot in his mouth to take his licks in public and try to remove said foot from said mouth. Actually, I must confess to feel quite sorry for Ken on this one. Yes, it probably wasn’t the most sensitive use of words but let’s face it, a 17-year-old and a 15-year-old having consensual sex is a different kettle of fish from someone actually forcing themselves on another. That’s not to say that rape isn’t the most serious of crimes, but there are different shades of severity just as there are different shades of Ken (see Fig. 1).
Anyhoo, a vocal and belligerent segment of the population took umbrage with Ken’s less than perfect choice of words and a media shitstorm unfolded on Wednesday with a speed and rapidity that defied belief. Worse still, the outrage wasn’t confined to the group who had the strongest claim to a legitimate beef and soon Ken was getting it in the neck from pretty much everyone: The right (for being Ken and soft on crims), No. 10 (for being Ken and switching his phone off), feminists (for being Ken and looking like the sort of bloke who says ‘wimmin’) and Labour (purely for laughs and the fact that they’ve been down on their luck for last few weeks). So yes, the stakes were high for the old boy and anything other than some heavy-duty contrition would inevitably lead to him having to slum it on the naughty step with the likes of Laws, Huhne and Fox (although I get the feeling that Fox actually feels quite at home on the naughty step).
To this end, Ken did pretty well by fully admitting he was a bit of a klutz for saying things in the way he did and that he compounded this by allowing the media to run rings round him, but he didn’t back down on his original point and the crowd were largely with him (although not cheering. I think everyone was a little nervous about how that response would go down). Eventually he settled down into a policy argument with Straw and the rest of his performance was fairly standard Ken fare, but he does seem to have got himself off the hook and that is something I’m largely glad about. For one, I think that this was a pretty wanky “media brouhaha” (to use Ken’s turn of phrase) and he was a victim of people looking for a fight but the second reason is slightly more important: Ken is a flawed character and politics needs flawed characters. One of the reasons we seem to have lost so much trust in politicians is that they spend so much time trying to impress us with how trustworthy they are and that is something that sets alarm bells ringing. By contrast, Ken’s never really pretended to be anything other than he is: A boozy semi-rogue who listens to jazz, nods off in the Commons and can’t really be arsed with the managerialism of modern politics. There are many aspects of him that I’m not too keen on (being knee-deep in Big Tobacco for one), but that’s the thing about human beings in general, they are not perfect and that’s not necessarily a bad thing (on a very tenuously related point, if you too happen to be a fan of flawed character’s, I highly recommend boning up on the American Civil War. I’m reading this utterly fantastic book on it at the moment and rough diamonds/tragically doomed characters are two-a-penny in that conflict, especially on the Union side. Seriously, check it out if you’re a fan of human frailty and the beauty of our failings).
Right, next up we have Jack Straw who has taken a break from his busy schedule of being a too-wiley-by-half, hard-bitten New Labour ex-Home Sec who might as well have been a proper Tory ex-Home Sec to, erh, carry on doing just that. As I mentioned last week, I have a real problem with previous Labour Home Office bods as this particular ministry seemed to do crazy things to their brains and I’ve never been a fan of Straw in particular. Having said that, I do have to admit that while the cloak of nefarious cunning he wraps himself in isn’t the most becoming of garments, it does suit him down to the ground and fits like a glove. Say what you want about his views and motives, at least he has the decency to look the part. The Demon Headmaster’s main contribution to last night’s show was to send my understanding of where everyone should be on the political spectrum into a flat spin as he embarked on a flanking march so far to the right that he nearly fell of the map and at times made common cause with Melanie Phillips, thus conjuring up the possibility of a love that dare not speak its name. That was one mental image I really didn’t need to see.
For the most part, Straw’s line of attack was pretty much based on the ‘I’LL SHOW YOU HOW TOUGH I AM!’ blueprint so beloved by New Labour but that didn’t seem to have as much traction with the crowd as it may have had in the past. However Straw is no dummy and in-between bouts of pounding his chest he found the time to chip away at the rich little seam of Justice on the Cheap. That proved far more effective, especially with the prison officers and went a little way to negating the excesses of his more truculent episodes. Also, he did mellow a little when it came to the matter of foreign aid and I must confess to being mightily relieved as there was an outside chance that he and Phillips may just start rutting like deranged elk had their opinions not diverged at that point. So yes, it was a pretty standard affair from Straw and while I still don’t particular like the guy, I do have to give grudging respect for his talent for survival and other related dark arts. My one piece of advice? Maybe it’s time to update your glasses Jack… I mean c’mon, Lennon’s been dead for 30 years now. Just sayin…
Ok, Panelist #3 coming up and this week it’s Shami Chakrabarti who has taken a break from her busy schedule of appearing on Question Time at least 200 times a year to appear on Question Time. Naturally, this was an opportunity for Shami to do what she does best (i.e. clip politicians round the ear in a firm but reasonable manner) in a very appropriate environment. Now, Shami’s been done to death in these Post Question Time Match Report’s (mainly by dint of appearing on Question Time 200 times a year) so I won’t go into too much detail other than to say that this was a solid performance that balanced the practical (giving life sentences to rapists means that they are more likely to kill people) with the ethical (telling Phillips to STFU on overseas aid because it’s the right thing to do), all delivered by a charming little boy with lovely manners. Very good Shami, see you next week.
Finally we have Melanie Phillips who has taken time out of her busy schedule of calling the Moon an Islamic conspiracy and accusing the Nanny State of making children drink monkey milk to give a bunch of lags what-for and generally spread the hate. I came up with that line earlier in the week and I must admit that I was a little worried I wouldn’t be able to use it as she was fairly (by her standards) restrained when it came to the first question on rape. Like all the other panelists, she gingerly picked her way round the subject as if the monolith from 2001 had just risen from the studio floor and no-one was quite sure whether to fear or worship it. “Bugger” thought I, “this is going to make the write-up a little tricky”. Happily though, this new-found sensitivity was short-lived and she proceeded to crank up the Bile-o-Tron™ and let slip the dogs of crazy on both the ‘does prison work’ and foreign aid questions (“Close down the Department of International Aid!” Nice one Mel). Overall, it was your standard outpouring of wide-eyed monkeyshine but this time with added weird thanks to the temporary blossoming of romance between her and Straw. However, I will bung her an extra mark for exercising a smidgen of restraint in the first 20 minutes.
By the way, I discovered this week that Phillips tweets. Since my day job as a mental health worker doesn’t quite provide the levels of insanity I need to sustain me, I’ve signed up as a follower and now have the luxury of being assaulted by 140 tiny little fists of madness every couple of days. Seriously, I’m impressed by the density of the derangement she is capable of generating. It’s like mental plutonium.
So that was panel and bully for them. However, the main reason why this was going to be a Bizarro Episode was that it was in prison and prisoners were part of the audience (well done to Dimbers for saying “thanks for coming”. It’s not like a three-hour journey or anything). On the whole, they were fairly tame (although the guy who asked for more money for cons and guards was quite entertaining) but one did stand out. This was the guy at the end with the plumby accent and suit. To be honest, I can’t quite remember what he said (although everyone seemed to like it) mainly because my mind was doing somersaults trying to figure out a)what he was in for (ram-raiding Laura Ashley?) and b) whether he walked about the prison wearing that suit. That provided a brief respite (or “respit” as Straw pronounces it) from some fairly dense stuff so I doff my cap to thee, O Lord of D-Wing. As for the rest of the crowd, well they partially restored my faith in my fellow-man. For one, I was glad that most people seemed on board with the idea that justice needs to be about rehabilitation as much as it is about punishment but also because they showed that they completely saw through the media’s (and Labour’s… to shame, Ed. You’re better than that) attempts to make something out of not very much at all. I also liked the fact that the guy who was most vocal in support for Clarke was wearing a shirt so pink that if it were shade of paint, it would be called ‘FUCKING PINK’ (Caps-lock mandatory).
The Crowd: 7/10
So there you go. A good, if slightly weird show that probably vexed everyone who hoped Clarke would break down like a turd in the rain. Next week Question Time will be in Exeter and I (oddly enough) will be writing it on a Megabus to Exeter. I suffer for my art.
Next week Lemmings, next week…