An extract from Auberon Waugh's column, Rage.
Many elderly people are condemned to watch television all day and all night, but it is only on my visits to a health farm in Suffolk that I become aware of being a citizen of the electronic age.
The experience, now repeated four times a year as I struggle to remain within the guidelines on fatness laid down by Mrs Bottomley, does not warm me to the rest of the human race, or to my fellow countrymen. Even the ranks of oldies marching past the Cenotaph on Armistice Day made me scowl. Fools, dupes... they allow themselves to be put on exhibition like this so that the young can laugh at them, and the politicians on parade can look fresh and purposeful by comparison.
Nearly everybody who appears on television looks untrustworthy, but Britons never look worse than when they appear as the studio audience on BBC l’s Question Time. I appeared on it once, many years ago, when Robin Day was the question-master. Although mildly irritated by Day, I found the audience so moronic, dishonest and unpleasant that I lost my temper with them and have never been asked back.
In the performance I watched while at Shrubland Hall, Sir Norman Fowler appeared with Gordon Brown and two stooges - a fat lady and an old man - whose names I did not catch. Brown made mincemeat of Fowler, demanding to know why the government spent £1 billion on this and not on that, in an angry, hectoring tone, full of contempt and loathing. I would not have minded this, having no particular love or admiration for Fowler, except that I thought Brown equally odious, and would have liked to see him humiliated too.
Brown gave a foretaste of what we can expect when the Tories are wiped out at the next General Election: quite quick and glib, with an impatient, thuggish manner and a brutal gleam in his glass eye, he appears the answer to every British whinger’s dream - a tough, embittered proletarian, seething with resentments, who swears he knows the answer to everything. Maddened by the scent of power in his nostrils, he will stop at nothing.
It is only after one has studied the studio audience that one realises how these two ratty little men trying to score off each other, one being rude, the other being unctuous, represent all we have by way of political debate in this country. Question Time may show Britain at its worst, but so far as the level of political debate is concerned, it is spot on.
Silly, unpleasant faces make carefully prepared demands for prisoners to be treated more harshly, for the government to spend more money on pensions or education or health or road safety. Other faces simply whinge about how unfair it is that anyone should earn more or own more or go to better schools or do better in exams than anyone else. Everything they say is odious and ignorant, yet this, we must accept, is the true voice of urban England.
At any rate it is the true voice of those prepared to express an opinion, which may not be the same thing, but these noises offer the only guidelines politicians have - these and the ever- encroaching pressure groups, whether anti-smoking, anti-alcohol, anti-hunting, pro-Life or anti-Life. It is to these people that our politicians must look for approval, since nobody else is interested in them, and it is an essential part of the political sickness that sufferers must win approval and admiration even as they exert power.
The result is a general paralysis. The government can’t tell us what we all know - that government spending is hopelessly out of control, health and education are kyboshed by idle or redundant employees, the police have degenerated into a gang of self-serving racketeers. Any of these admissions would allow points to be scored by Gordon Brown, in his monomaniac desire to make everything worse. There can be no debate.
It may have been a happy accident that Fowler and Brown were both nasty pieces of work. Sweep them away and the ghastly audience remains. The audience can’t face truths about our schools, our young people, our teachers, our national resources or anything else - let alone about themselves. The fact that the two politicians are prepared to play along with these conventions may make them all the more easy to despise, but it does not offer any solution.
The answer is surely that Question Time shows Britain at its most unattractive for the simple reason that the English (in particular) don’t really want to discuss politics. We are not a nation of intellectuals and we are not interested in politics.
We will vote when elections come round but that is about it. Force an Englishman to express a political opinion, and he will make a fool of himself.
If the politicians were left to get along without public notice, briefly reported only in the posh papers, they would assuredly do a better job. Any extension of democratic debate is a mistake. Even the politicians have gained nothing from appearing on television, since they are now more despised than ever.
The general public has shown its own preferences, which are for television soap operas and the sadistic hounding of any celebrities who emerge from them. These people are quite capable of throwing out any government which causes them inconvenience. My point is that they are less likely to be inconvenienced in this way if they are not consulted too much about the government of the country.