More questions than answers

So, did you see my big moment? My 15 seconds of fame? Getting to ask the first question on Question Time – it’s not something they just hand out to anyone after all.

I’ve been watching QT for the best part of 30 years, from Robin Day in his pomp skewering politicians and audience alike with his wit to Peter Sissons and David Dimbleby keeping order and occasional disorder.

But hasn’t QT become so dull and contrived and devoid of any real debate? The identikit Stepford politicians of all hues are indistinguishable in their dullness and conformity to the party line. Then there’s the BBC’s peculiar obsession with UKIP, a party with zero MPs and a 2010 manifesto that borders on the insane, but whose leading figures (Nigel Farage in particular) appear to have a season ticket to appear on the QT panel while the Green party, with an actual proper elected MP are uniformly ignored.

Having said all that, of course, my ears pricked up when I heard that the programme was coming from Brighton this week – I really fancied being in the audience and being given my chance to grill the panel. I’m a chippy moo like that.

So without thinking about it (or even mentioning it to Debbie), I applied via their website, a surprisingly easy and quick process, and promptly forgot all about it. until I got a call on Monday from the audience producer.

I was in, she told me.

Oh and would Debbie Browett, on whose behalf I had also blithely applied, also be happy to take part?

Er, yeah, about that – maybe not seeing as how my better half is a civil servant. I’d be riding solo on this one.

The drill is that audience participants are invited to submit a question by email a couple of days before the show is filmed. I thought long and hard about what topic I’d like to address and finally drafted my question:

Is the Conservative plan to raise the inheritance tax threshold further evidence that we are, as David Cameron said, a wealthy country and so austerity is ideological, not essential?

I reckon the audience is about 100 strong. But I had no absolutely no doubts that I would be picked to ask a question. Don’t ask me how, it was like an unexplained, Mystic Meg moment when the producer called me on Monday.

So it was on to Brighton University’s Falmer campus on Thursday night, having alerted my entire social circle via Twitter and Facebook that this was my big moment.

I’d been pondering what my second question would be, but the decision was an easy one when I woke up on Thursday morning to the news that Ofgem was to launch a competition inquiry into the business practices of the so-called Big Six energy companies.

Once through fairly rigorous security in the uni gym, I handed over my ID and took a postcard on to which I wrote my second question:

Is the Ofgem inquiry into the Big Six a sign that energy is too important to be left to the market?

I’ll be honest – I thought my first question was better, but hey-ho.

Helping myself to a cup of stewed tea (and ignoring a limp-looking buffet of sarnies, fruit and biscuits), I took a seat and scoped out my fellow audience members, seated in semi-circles with two TVs tuned to the teatime news at one end.

In the queue for security, I’d been jostled about four times without a single apology by a woman behind me with a Scots accent. I hate that.

She was just too close to me and had no patience in waiting for the queue to move at its own pace. She and her pals were sitting close to me in the waiting area. They were annoyingly loud and more so when David Dimbleby himself appeared.

David Dimbleby chats to the audience pre-show – annoying personal space invader woman is in the foreground

He gave us some nice chat about what to expect, told some anecdotes about previous shows – none vaguely memorable, I’m afraid, except for something about a ham sandwich and Tony Blair – and generally put us at ease over the filming.

He explained the format: we’d go into the studio (gym hall) and sit where we liked. Five of us would be asked to join a mock panel, chaired by one of the producers, that would allow us a wee warm-up and let the technicians check the mikes and cameras were working.

Then the names of seven or eight people whose questions had been chosen would be called out, the technicians would mark the seat position for filming and they’d be taken aside for a few minutes to go through their question and what to do when Dimbers said their name.

I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that annoying personal space invader and her pals were first with their hands up when volunteers were called for. I sniggered when she didn’t get chosen but her pal – who’d spent at least 10 minutes doing her lippy beforehand – got the nod. All I remember of her contribution is her name – Brogan – and that red red lippy.

The mock panel is actually a great way of relaxing the audience, thanks to the producer bloke (whose name escapes me) who chivvied everyone along nicely, prompting good responses from the audience and encouraging the panel to speak up.

Then in came audience producer Alison with the all-important list of questions. My heart was bumping a wee bit at this point. My certainty that I’d been chosen was unshaken but I was – to be blunt – kacking myself a wee bit at the prospect.

Here’s the other thing: The very first question chosen doesn’t get filmed. It’s used by Dimbers to help the panel warm up and give them time to iron out any technical hitches. I’d have been gutted if I’d been picked but then not filmed.

Luckily for me, that honour went to the bloke across the aisle from me. He was still made up at getting chosen and his un-broadcast question, on whether teachers have any right to complain about wages and pensions when their holidays are so good, certainly got things off to a rousing start.

Alison explained what was about to happen and then started to read out the names of those whose questions had been chosen. First up is bloke across the aisle. He was asked to stand while the techie folk went to work. And then Allison said “And the the person who will start the show with their question is Frances Traynor.”

Well, I bounced out of my seat like Tigger after a night on vodka and Red Bull!

Eight names in total were read out and we were taken to one side by Alison while she ran us through exactly what was needed. One woman was literally shaking with nerves at this point and I did wonder why on earth she had actually applied to be on if she was that nervous; also she could simply have declined when asked.

When I heard her question later – on equal marriage and how she, as a Christian, was against it – I rather wish she had. I had even shaken her hand to wish her luck beforehand like the all-round good gay gal I am. Sheesh.

Dimbers came on and introduced the panel one by one. It will surprise no-one that the announcement of UKIP MEP Roger Helmer was greeted with a mixture of groans and jeers with fairly muted applause. Even the parliamentary automaton that is Justine Greening got a better response than that.

We got underway with the the pre-filming question. I paid little attention to it, all my focus on the little slip of paper in my rapidly sweating palm that contained my question. But before I could get myself any more worked up and conscious that my face was getting warmer and warmer and redder and redder by the second, it was lights, camera, action.

I’d like to say I enunciated perfectly, my modulated Caledonian tones sending a hush across the audience. Truth is I sounded, as always, like Mary Doll Nesbitt.

Awright, chinas.

Anyway, my part in the whole show was over in about 15 seconds, apart from fleeting glimpses of me courtesy of a friendly cameraman, the best of which was my total face palm at another piece of drivel from old Roger.

IMG_1279I had my hand up a lot of the time, trying to stick my tuppence worth into the debate, but sadly Dimbers ignored me and the keen-as-mustard students around me who were also desperate to be involved.

And in what seemed like only minutes, it was over. There was some seriously heated debate, particularly on affordable housing and equal marriage. The Brighton audience got a bit feisty on the latter topic – it was fab.

So there it was – Question Time over in no time. And if you think you get het up watching from your sofa, next time try being bang in the middle of: you’ll love it.

What do we really want from Scotland’s independence vote?

The debate on Scottish independence is a passionate one in which I’ve been participating for all of my adult life. Yet since moving south two and a bit years ago (and feeling more Scottish than ever), I’ve never felt more disengaged from the discussion over where Scotland goes next.

The other day I dropped in on a stimulating and vigorous Twitter conversation between the singer Eddi Reader (@eddireader) and Mary Galbraith (@mary_galbraith), a Scottish Labour activist. While I felt I had nothing constructive to add to what each was saying, it riled me that I’ve felt such inertia about the 2014 vote that I don’t even really discuss it at all.

In the main that is because I’m no longer immersed in the minutiae of Scottish politics, not discussing Holyrood and Westminster with friends, family and colleagues on a daily basis. I have to seek out the Scottish news on TV and online, which I do but it’s not quite the same. And it’s also because unless something dramatic happens to Debbie’s career in the next year or so, I won’t be living in Scotland when the independence vote is held and so I feel quite removed from the process.

For me, there is no ambivalence about independence – I am instinctively (and it pains me in ways I cannot express to use the word) a unionist. I’ve always felt Scotland’s long-term interests would be best served as part of the UK. Devolution seemed to offer a way for Scotland to celebrate and express its more civic-minded (lower case) nationalism through policies devised and debated in our back yard.

Devolution hasn’t been a failure but neither can it be hailed as a complete success. The Edinburgh parliament has been hamstrung by many things, not least of which is the often grim quality of the MSPs on all sides elected to the chamber. Not all, I hasten to add, because there have been some outstanding MSPs in the last decade and a half but far too many bench fillers for my liking.

But there’s no simple UK = good, independence = bad for me. Nothing is that clear cut and nor should it be. I want to be persuaded and convinced by cogent, well-thought-out arguments from either side (even without a vote!) but the same, tired old clichés I’ve been hearing for 40 years are being trotted out on either side.

The late Donald Dewar, who piloted the Scotland Act through the Commons in 1997, often described devolution as a process not an end in itself. So I was interested to read of a speech on Friday by Douglas Alexander that calls for a national convention that would help define and shape the Scotland of the future. He acknowledges there might well be a yes vote, despite what the polls currently say, but believes a convention similar to the Constitutional Convention that devised devolution in the 1990s would let Scots from all walks of life have their say on what kind of Scotland they want to live in. Euan McColm in today’s Scotland on Sunday has a good analysis of his speech.

A national convention is an interesting idea which most likely will go precisely nowhere. Giving a voice to ordinary people rarely sits well with politicos – too often we don’t give quite the responses the politicians are looking for.

But there has to be more to the independence debate than a simple yes or no. The discussions, as fevered, passionate, thrawn and occasionally funny as they are, should be about where we’re going, not where we’ve come from. And I don’t need a vote to know that.