BBC Radio 4 trucks had been parked at Falmouth University all day, enveloped in a thick cloud of classic Cornish drizzle. What a warm West-Country welcome, I thought whilst watching sound engineers transport speakers under bin bags.
For anyone not familiar with show, its premise is simple. The BBC assembles a panel of policy changers, writers and thinkers to discuss questions posed live by members of the audience. Questions are submitted on arrival and selected by the producers on account of their relevance to local issues and national current affairs.
The panel must be articulate and ready for Dimbleby to initiate a debate. I hoped someone would be mouthy. I like scrappy politics.
We, in the audience however, could not be. We’d had a lesson on decorum by Editor of BBC Radio Cornwall, Daphne Skinnard. During her welcome speech we practiced our clapping, our laughing, our groaning and learnt the ground-rules. No booing, no shouting, no passionate outbursts of uncouth negativity.
It was clear that British standards of respectability were necessary, with just enough wiggle room for humour. Inflammatory debate makes for great entertainment but Radio 4 isn’t ‘shouty’, it’s a bastion of dignified discussion.
The panel it turned out was an inspired mix of characters.
Joining Dimbleby was Environment Minister Therèse Coffey, Labour MP and Chair of the Work and Pensions Select Committee Sir Frank Field, Editor In Chief of the left-wing news site, The Canary Kerry-Anne Mendoza and Co-founder of the Eden Project, Sir Tim Smit. All held varying stances on similar issues, but with enough difference to create debate worthy friction.
Smit was an environmental juggernaut, refreshingly frank in his approach to humanising global topics and cutting through political jargon. Charismatic characters make good company for politicians who can be bound into giving dull, uniform responses. His approach was forthright, holding Coffey and Field accountable for equivocation whilst unwilling to sugar coat his own opinions on politics.
“It is totally trivial to the future of the world,” Smit said of Trump’s impending trip to North Korea to discuss de-nuclearisation with Kim Jong-un.
“We have got into a complete froth about ‘your bomb is bigger than my bomb’.”
Smit’s estimation of the American President didn’t improve when it came to the next topic on the agenda; Trump’s threat of starting a global trade war.
“I think he’s mad,” said Smit. “It’s extraordinary; there is no example in world history of restraint of trade being good for the development of civilisation.”
Editor of The Canary, Kerry Anne Mendoza, took a similar stance.
“Slavery was a trade war. Colonialism was a trade war. It doesn’t take long for a trade war to turn into a real war, and it doesn’t take long for a trade war to turn into something enormously damaging for people like you in the audience, who really just want to get up in the morning, go to work, see their friends and get on with their lives.”
In an attempt to bring discussions back to our side of the Atlantic, Cornish Pasties became the focus around the issue of British and American food standards. Pasties contribute around £300 million to the Cornish economy every year, but with Trump’s threats of trade restrictions we may see American versions being sold on British shelves. With their reputation of genetically modified farming, should Britain welcome hormone injected beef and chlorinated chicken for the sake of a trade deal? Coffey’s legacy of championing successful environmental policies including the 5p plastic bag charge, stood her in good stead to comment.
“Our animal welfare standards will simply not be compromised,” said Coffey. “It is our intention through the withdrawal bill, if we get this bill through with all the powers we would like to have, yes we will bring that protection of those geographical indications into place.”
Geographic indications, including Scotch Whiskey and the Cornish Pasty currently enjoy protected status. Coffey guaranteed the integrity of the Cornish pasty name would be non-negotiable and maintain its current status post-Brexit. A red line had been drawn.
“That’s why the Cornish Pasty is certainly safe in our hands,” said Coffey.
But not everyone was convinced. “The last time I heard a conservative tell me something was safe in their hands we were talking about the NHS,” responded Mendoza, who urged people to listen out for certain terminology being used throughout the Brexit process, specifically the word, harmonization.
“What it actually means is lowest common denominator,” an indication of the lowering of one country’s food and animal welfare standards in order to trade with another.
“Our animal welfare standards and our health and safety laws and all those things, are by no means perfect, but they’re good,” Mendoza said, “and the whole focus of our energies should be in making them better and stronger.”
If allowances were made for certain American markets in the UK, those currently complying with Britain’s high standards of animal welfare could be undercut. We could also kiss our EU trading goodbye.
“Those products will be cheaper and people will buy them and the people who are following the rules and treating the animals well and really putting the time and the effort into making safe, quality food will be put out of business by the people who aren’t.”
Among her many grounded responses during the evening, Mendoza created one memorable eye-twitching moment by assuming that the former Russian spy and his daughter Sergei and Yulia Skripal, allegedly poisoned by a Russian nerve agent, were already dead.
But perhaps more uncomfortable was Frank Field’s reluctance to be concise throughout the program. It wasn’t what he said, rather the length of time it took him to say it. Having been an MP since 1979, his aptitude for decidedly making a point and ignoring attempts at moderation had been well honed in the house commons. I was left feeling disappointed by the imbalance it created when Dimbleby couldn’t stem the verbal flow. This was however, an undeniable source of humour and their ongoing skirmish lightened topics Including that of attempted murder on the streets of Salisbury.
Any Questions? Producer, Lisa Jenkinson said after the program: “Some of the questions could’ve appeared light this evening, but they are some of the biggest issues around at the moment. The pasties related to global trade wars, the fishing rights are to do with Brexit. Whenever we come [to Cornwall] it’s a politically engaged place and we great audiences with great questions.”
The final topic of the evening brought some light relief from the latest tales of Trump and Russia. “A message was found in a bottle this week from 1880,” the panel was told. “What message would you leave in a bottle to be found and read in 130 years time?”
Mendoza summed it up: “We tried.”
Listen here: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b09thl6x