Heated national political debate came to Highbridge on Friday evening (June 22nd) when BBC Radio 4 broadcast a live episode of ‘Any Questions’ from the town’s Community Hall.
Brexit, Donald Trump, NHS funding and the use of mobile phones in schools were among the controversial topics covered during the lively 50-minute radio show, presented by Jonathan Dimbleby, with a panel of Alastair Campbell, journalist Maya Goodfellow, the conservative peer Lord Peter Lilley and the economist Linda Yueh.
More than 150 people were in the audience for the live broadcast and ten people had their submitted questions chosen for the show, with four being featured.
But it was NHS funding and Brexit that caused the most controversy, with one resident heckling the Labour’s Alastair Campbell before being asked by the BBC host to “hold it sir!”
The first question, from Colin Brooks, was: “Should the recent concerns expressed by Airbus and BMW influence the outcome of Brexit?”
In his reply, Peter Lilley confused the programme’s host Jonathan Dimbleby with David Dimbleby – the host of BBC1’s Question Time – to laughter from the audience, before he went on defend the government’s position on Brexit.
He said: “We can either consider what they [Airbus and BMW] actually said and how we can mitigate their concerns or either treat it as propaganda for re-fighting the referendum campaign.” He added that the “whole purpose of the WTO agreement is to encourage and facilitate free trade after we leave.”
Alastair Campbell responded: “I think this is the week that Brexit is starting to implode. The week started with Theresa May talking about saving the NHS through an NHS dividend and is ending with serious, major big employers in this country saying that because of these red lines from Theresa May that we’re out of the single market and customs union that will do massive damage to their companies and jobs.”
He added: “This is not project fear – it’s happening. People have to get real… the establishment are messing it up big time.”
Economist Linda Yueh added that the “government should take the views of businesses into account. I’m sure Airbus and BMW are not the only ones.”
Journalist Maya Goodfellow said: “It should worry us all that it’s got to this stage. It’s not just proclamations from businesses, it’s people’s jobs on the line, and the government is putting people’s jobs at risk by having this really clumsy negotiating strategy and they should have seen this coming.”
Peter Lilly and Alastair Campbell then had a lively exchange over the interpretation of the new Irish borders, with plenty of audience cheering.
The second question from the audience came from Joanna Lewin-Harris, who asked: “How does the panel think the government should raise the extra money it has promised to fund the NHS?”
Tony Lynham, a resident in the audience, shouted out: “Leave the EU!” to the sound of loud applause.
Linda Yueh said: “It is going to require raising taxes. That is what the Jeremy Hunt has said. The reality is that the pressures on the NHS are acute.”
Amid further heckling from audience members at the back of the hall, Jonathan Dimbleby told Mr Lynham: “Hold it sir, it’s difficult for the panelists to speak over the level of interruption they’re getting. Do be kind.”
After further explanation from Linda Yueh about why higher taxes are necessary, Maya Goodfellow added that she thinks the “whole idea of a Brexit dividend is a total lie.”
Peter Lilley said: “Yes we will need more money for the NHS, continuously as the years go by, therefore we have got to have increased tax revenues. If you think you can keep raising tax rates that’s a way to kill growth, and it’s growth that creates extra tax revenues in the long run.” He added that the Brexit dividend will be “£10bn a year” and went on to say the economy is doing better than expected.
But Alastair Campbell claimed there would be “£55bn of extra borrowing in 2023, just by leaving the single market. Brexit is the elephant in the room and you will have less money for the NHS, not more.”
Audience member Tony Lynham then called for a “show of hands on taxes” which Jonathan Dimbleby agreed to do, finding the audience was strongly in favour of tax increases to fund the NHS.
The third question, from Jude Owens, asked: “Mobile phone in schools are bad for students’ health and wellbeing. Discuss.”
All the panelists were in agreement that head teachers should be able to ban mobiles in schools. “Give headteachers the power and encouragement to tackle this at source in schools day by day,” said Mr Campbell.
Peter Lilley added: “We should apply this to families, parents and the schools that they have the responsibility and it shouldn’t have to be the state dictating down from the centre. Phones can be good but have to be kept in their place.”
A show of hands revealed 100% support in the audience for a ban on mobiles in schools.
The fourth question came from Liz Donahue: “In light of the enforced separation of asylum-seeking families in the USA, should we not rethink our invitation to President Trump for the official July visit?”
Linda Yueh responded: “President Trump, as a world leader, is someone we have to engage with. The official welcome must be granted, but it doesn’t mean that if you don’t agree with him that any of us can’t go and protest and make our views known. I think Theresa May should condemn this policy.”
Alastair Campell added: “I think Trump is utterly repulsive at virtually every level but the PM and government has to have relations with the US. I think she made a terrible mistake in offering this state visit on her first meeting with him.”
Maya Goodfellow said she believes “the visit will go ahead because Theresa May has no spine when it comes to Donald Trump.”
However, Peter Lilley added: “Trump is an appalling man but he is the leader of a wonderful country which is our strongest and most important ally. Of course we should go ahead but it’s not an occasion for Theresa May to be signaling at the expense of our alliance.”
After the live broadcast had finished, Mr Dimbleby explained to the audience that he had not wanted to stop the audience participation during the show, only help the panelists to hear what was happening.
Highbridge councillor Janet Keen, who applied for the BBC to bring the show to the town centre, told Burnham-On-Sea.com afterwards: “It was a very good evening, helping to put Highbridge on the national map. It was gratifying that there were so many in the audience.”
She added: “We never expected all to agree with one another!”