Good news from the BBC: a generation raised on the Muppets can look forward to a wave of nostalgia on 2 April as Britain’s leading Statler and Waldorf impersonators are brought to our screens to spend a whole hour talking absolute nonsense. Check your Radio Times for Clegg/Farage EU Debate.
The BBC has justified its choice of panellists, saying ‘Clegg’s Liberal Democrats are the most pro-EU of the main parties at Westminster’. Which is as much of an achievement as being the most environmentally friendly Top Gear presenter. But let’s accept, for argument’s sake, that the criteria for inclusion are based on leading one of the main parties at Westminster. So he’ll presumably be up against the most anti-EU main Westminster party leader? Except that’s his boss. Whoops.
Instead he’s up against Nigel Farage. Whose party has exactly no seats at all in Westminster. Less than the Scottish National Party, Sinn Fein, Plaid Cymru, the Greens and that shouty Scottish man who dressed up as a cat. Farage is the political equivalent of your great uncle Cuthbert, who’s still so angry about the war he switches off the Eurovision Song Contest when the Germans come on.
And that’s the point. We know from Farage and Clegg’s dry-run on LBC radio and from what happens on those rarer-than-an-MP-without-an-expense-account weeks when a ‘you kipper’ (did I invent that? I’m a genius!) makes it onto the Question Time panel that the debate is really going to be about immigration. In fact, the BBC originally described it as an immigration debate when it was announced. Double whoops.
Never mind that the EU affects much more than our border controls. Never mind that most immigrants in this country are not even from the EU. Will Clegg and Farage also be debating whether we should leave the Commonwealth? And if we left the EU, many European migrants would still come. They could get visas, for example, by marrying Mr Clegg (whose wife is Spanish) or Mr Farage (whose wife is German). It must be extra-embarrassing if the in-laws come round for Eurovision...
And of course, you know you’re going to hear all the nuances of all the arguments on immigration when your panel is two straight, white, middle-aged men, one from Chalfont St Giles in Buckinghamshire and the other from a seaside resort in Kent. While they’re up there they may as well pick the themes for this year’s Feminism In London conference and hand out the MoBos.
Hopefully this means someone spiked the drinks at the latest TV executives’ shin-dig and heralds a glut of maverick mismatched programming. We’ll have David Mitchell hosting Football Focus, Jeremy Paxman on Celebrity Love Island and Mary Beard auditioning Britain’s Next Top Model. I would watch that; it would be amazing: ‘Have you got a PHD?’, ‘Aren’t you hungry?’, ‘Next!’.
The audience, we’re told, will ‘be demographically representative’, but representative of what? A sanitized selection of the sort of people who want to be in the same room as Nigel Farage for an hour. Will they, for example, include my friend Sabine* from Cameroon?
Despite supporting evidence from the professional medical team at the charity Freedom From Torture, Sabine has been kept in limbo by the British asylum system for over a decade. She alternates between receiving $60-a-week asylum-seekers benefit and being left entirely destitute, barred from working and constantly under threat of imprisonment and violent deportation.
Without her ‘permanent leave to remain’ papers it also means a decade has passed since she last saw the two small children – now teenagers – she had to leave behind. If she had committed the torture, rather than been its victim, she could reasonably expect a shorter punishment.
She’d love to ask a question. At a recent conference at which she was on the panel, an audience member asked her what she would like to say to politicians about immigration. She responded calmly ‘Why don’t you just kill me?’
In fact, all that a ‘demographically representative’ selection of the British population means is that most of them will be grossly misinformed about the basic facts of immigration. They will have read in the Daily Mail that illegal arrivals from eastern Europe are squatting Buckingham Palace and costing the tax-payer millions. Of course that is true, but not in the way they think.
Clegg supports the current immigration system. The system that has casually stolen 10 years of Sabine’s life. If he doesn’t, he should dissolve the Coalition. If you don’t like the music, stop putting coins in the jukebox. Farage, on the other hand, is anti-immigration. He thinks the current system is too lax. Can you even be too lax on a victim of torture?
To allow only these two to take the stage for a debate on immigration frames the issue in a completely skewed way. It’s like asking ‘Should you beat your wife weekly or daily?’
Complaints about the choice of speakers will be brushed off on the grounds of free speech, so often these days radically reinterpreted as the ‘right to lie’. If we really want to debate meaningfully the EU or immigration we need to hear more, and better-informed, voices than these two ignorant Muppets.
*Not real name. Obvious reasons. She desperately needs funds towards the legal costs of her latest appeal. If you can help please quote my name and contact Women For Refugee Women.
Kate Smurthwaite is a British stand-up comedian and political activist and soon-to be columnist for New Internationalist magazine.