Live-blogging Question Time.

22.34 – Here we go, folks. I’m hoping for not too much on Kate Middleton. It’s Peter Hitchens, Giles Fraser and Diane Abbott amongst others tonight, so debate should be diverse and hopefully fruitful.

22.40 – First up is whether we should overhaul the jury system in light of the Vicky Pryce case calamity. Abbott takes the easy and sane and anti-reactionary position. But Hitchens calls for an overhaul! He thinks eighteen years old is too young, and he wants some sort of educational qualification. He calls the status quo the product of an ‘egalitarian thrust’. He implies that anybody would be worried by the idea of being tried by people of low intelligence.

Look, I’m not one to jump to the defence of juries as a concept, but if we’re going to stick with them and deem this the way of doing things, then the idea of violating equality and imposing some sort of Platonic intellectual criterion on participation is repulsive and can never be compatible with a decent society respecting all citizens.

22.45 – Heseltine picks up on the point about age – again, it’s a matter of consistency here. We can’t suggest that at eighteen years old, you’re fit to leave school, have a house, pay tax and fight for one’s country, but one cannot judge one’s fellow citizens. He also notes the inevitable arbitrariness inherent to any educational criterion, not to mention the political problems in setting such a bar. That catchphrase about democracy being the worst form of government except all the others springs to mind. It seems we should say the exact same thing about jury duty.

22.48 – Three side points here. 1 – A lawyer-friend wrote on my Facebook earlier:

The root problem is, as I’ve said before, that trial by jury is simply an outright awful method of assessing evidence – the problem is that a majority of my ‘peers’ are prejudiced, inconsistent and downright moronic.

2 – I remember Lois McNay telling me in a political theory class in my first year that sociological studies show middle-class white men overwhelmingly tend to dominate jury discourse and sway all others.

3 – For philosophers, this story is, frankly, hilarious. Just read the details the BBC provides us:

Would religious conviction be a good enough reason for a wife feeling that she had no choice, ie she promised to obey her husband in her wedding vows and he had ordered her to do something and she felt she had to obey?

“This is not, with respect, a question about this case at all,” said the judge. “Ms Pryce does not say that any such reasoning formed any part of her decision to do what she did and the answer to this question will therefore not help you in any way whatsoever to reach a true verdict in this case.

“I must direct you firmly to focus on the real issues in this case and thereby to reach a true verdict according to the evidence.”

It’s like they got distracted in some sort of Socratic dialogue and engaged in pure contemplation! This tweet tickled me:

22.52 – Hitchens asks who sincerely wants sixteen year olds deciding the future of this country. The disrespect stinks. And he clearly hasn’t watched The West Wing:

22.56 – I missed the start of this next topic, but it sounds like a discussion of benefits based on some tabloid story about one lady’s excessive claims. I haven’t been following it and the debate is sounding formulaic. I’ll sit this one out.

22.59 – Lol:

23.01 – So it did develop into something of more interest. A guy in the audience denied the right to live in Central London on the grounds that he has worked all his life and could never afford such a thing. Giles Fraser asks, very wisely, what sort of country and city we wish to create here: a ghost-town monopolised by Russian oligarchs and Saudi Sheikhs, and as most of Mayfair is nowadays? Or a London where everyone can live and prices aren’t sent soaring by unregulated free market forces? Or is this just another egalitarian thrust like the one that Hitchens just snarled at?

23.05 – Vince Cable is talking about the deficit again and the necessity of hacking away at a bloated welfare state, as if he genuinely believes in the pseudo-economics that his coalition partners are committed to. Well, I labelled him Mr. Mediocre when I met him last summer for a reason.

23.08 – Next question: “Is whites being a minority in London a good thing?” (Census data here). I’m not sure how to feel about this being a question proposed to us on tax-funded television. This wasn’t just raised by an audience member ad hoc. Dimbleby will have picked her knowing what she was about to say. So why air it? Why is this the sort of debate we need to have? Even Heseltine and Hitchens are deeming it a non-issue, for Christ’s sake. I can’t see Cable or Abbott or Fraser offering much dissent.

23.12 – Hitchens does make a good point here. It’s easy to laugh at right-wing rhetoric on this point, but I think he’s spot on in saying that we lack, and desperately need, some better and firmer sources of national identity to enhance social cohesion, and this need not be couched in the nasty language of assimilation, and it need not contradict multiculturalism, despite what Fraser is now suggesting. I remember hearing Ed Husain – who wrote The Islamist – speak here in Oxford, and he said that the fundamental difference between Islamic terrorists in the States and in Britain is that the latter don’t even refer to themselves as British. If we watch the 7/7 videos, you’ve got men who grew up in Yorkshire referring to their ‘brothers’ in Iraq which their actual fellow citizens went over to kill. Could the alienation and lack of identification with one’s surrounding be any more extreme? The feelings of exclusion from democratic discourse, for whatever host of reasons, is quite something. That doesn’t mean we must deny diversity. It does mean that there is work on race relations to be done. There should be far more room for agreement between the left and right on this.

23.18 – Diane, you old Marxist. She’s probably right, though. It’s class, not culture. The latter is just a misnomer which tends to track and obscure the core former issue. But I’m bordering on the sort of pop-speculation I disdain now, so I’ll stop.

23.20 – Hah. Someone asks Hitchens to define Britishness, and he stalls and pleads lack of time. Look, I know I said I’d agree with him in principle on the need for a core national identity. But there is no doubt that he’d imbue it with all sorts of particularistic, contentious and illiberal properties that would appal me. I’ve written about this before. I see it working something like this:

But it seems to me there is at least one form of patriotism that is perfectly consistent with liberalism, both in the sense that liberal citizens should embrace it and liberal governments need not shy away from it. Namely, a patriotism focused on celebrating the liberal state itself. If when flying the flag, what is going on mentally is a celebration of fundamental liberal principles like equality, and core freedoms such as that of thought and speech – what could possibly be illiberal about fostering those sorts of feelings?

And I think this sort of thought is intrinsic to and dominant in the American identity. It is reflected in their other key national symbol, the Statue of Liberty. So perhaps Britain is at a disadvantage here. As we know too well, our flag is too tied up with the monarchy and football. But maybe British liberals should get to work on changing that.

23.22 – And finally, we move on to the issue related to the current government’s raison d’etre: austerity. Fraser makes the opening attack. Let Cable’s squirming begin. Oh, no, wait. He’s invoking Keynes. He’s embracing deliberately allowing the deficit to grow to stabilise the economy! He’s talking about borrowing to help stimulate growth. He just doesn’t think, presumably, any of that violates the practices of the government he partly constitutes. I don’t understand the man. He’s talking of the combination of stimulation and discipline. Dimbleby calls him out and gets him to say ‘Yes’ to the question of whether Osborne’s current policy is Keynesian. Oh Lordy. Cable clearly can’t hack balancing what he truly believes with what his position requires. He’s a walking contradiction, just like he was when I asked him about education policy.

23.27 – You can count on Heseltine to churn out the stale Tory rhetoric about how the pain is absolutely necessary, blaming it all on Labour. We must ‘sweat it out’, as he puts it. Krugman has described this idea well as ‘a medieval doctor bleeding his patient, observing that the patient is getting sicker, not better, and deciding that this calls for even more bleeding.’ Abbott seems to call the austerians out on their bull, but then she backtracks and denies that the deficit should be allowed to rise. Her point seems to be about the distribution of the cuts hitting the poorest hardest, rather than the principle of cutting per se. That’s not the thing to say here. At least she’s not Chancellor. Ed Balls knows it.

23.31 – Abbott has a great line though. “Dr. Cable is a reasonable man propping up an unreasonable Tory government”. She sees the insufferable schizophrenia too.

23. 36 – Well, amazingly, we avoided Kate Middleton completely. That’s a wrap, anyway, so here’s signing out.

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