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Climate change, Brexit and nationalism: BBC Radio 4’s Any Questions?

BBC Radio 4’s flagship political debate programme Any Questions? was broadcast from Jesus College on 10 May 2019. Jonathan Dimbleby chaired the panel which included Suella Braverman MP, Richard Burgon MP, Sir Ed Davey MP and Liz Saville Roberts MP. Undergraduate Finn Ranson (2017) gives a student’s perspective on the night’s talking points.

Climate change should be important to us all, and this generation of students feels the need for urgent action. The University recently announced the establishment of the Centre for Climate Repair, an initiative aimed at investigating radical methods to repair the earth’s climate. 

It was fitting, then, that climate change came top of the BBC's Any Questions? agenda. The first of six questioners from the audience asked why MPs were not pressing the government to take more radical action. Although the Commons has recently become the first parliament in the world to declare a national climate emergency, there has been lobbying for this for the past 25 years, and it took days of protest across the country to finally force Westminster’s hand.

Labour MP and Shadow Justice Secretary Richard Burgon welcomed the efforts of Extinction Rebellion, and suggested that the current state of affairs was symptomatic of free market capitalism. “The pursuit of profit regardless of environmental cost has pushed our planet to the edge of climate catastrophe,” he said. “Real intervention, regulation and international cooperation is required if we are going to avoid that.”

Suella Braverman said she was proud of the Conservative government’s record on climate change. “We are a world-leader when it comes to reducing greenhouse gases,” she argued. “We’ve reduced renewable energy supplies and we have been ruthless on coal power.”

The 1st to the 8th of May 2019 marked the UK’s first week without using electricity from burning coal since the 1880s, and the government intends to phase out the UK’s last coal power stations by 2025. Yet 46% of the electricity that week was generated by burning natural gas which produces carbon dioxide, meaning that the government’s longer-term commitment to reduce emissions by at least 80% of 1990 levels by 2050 came under question.

Plaid Cymru’s Liz Saville Roberts reminded the audience of the major tidal energy project planned in Swansea that was thrown out by the government last June. “There is a problem,” Braverman said. “Since 2010 there has been progress. We need to build on that, but let’s keep it in perspective.”

Former Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, Sir Ed Davey, argued that the Conservative government had withdrawn many of the policies pushed forward by the Liberal Democrats in the 2010-2015 coalition government, such as the zero carbon homes plan. “What Suella talked about was actually what Liberal Democrat ministers did,” Davey said. “We nearly quadrupled renewable power. Britain is now a global leader in offshore wind.”

But Davey’s main objection was to Braverman’s charge against the Chinese government for not doing enough to reduce carbon emissions. “[We need] international cooperation,” he said, echoing Burgon’s thoughts. “The Chinese are making massive investments in solar and wind. And one international cooperation we should be doing is staying at the European table.”

Discussion inevitably turned to Brexit, with a member of the audience asking if the disorganisation of Britain’s main political parties will hand victory to Nigel Farage’s new Brexit Party in the upcoming MEP elections.

The answers of the Conservative and Labour party representatives were received with laughter. “We’ve got many different parties on the remain side,” said Braverman, who resigned from her post as Under-Secretary of State for Exiting the EU last November. “They do lack coherence. They don’t agree on what the question should be for this second referendum they all seem to be supporting, and it’s very difficult to see what their plan is.”

But there was loud applause from the audience when Dimbleby asked her to comment on her own party’s divide over the Prime Minister’s deal, and the absence of a manifesto for the European Parliamentary elections on 23 May.

“We have failed to deliver Brexit,” Braverman said. “I’ve voted against the deal. I will vote for the Conservative party [in the European Parliamentary elections]. But I am not anticipating a victorious night.”

Dimbleby did not give Burgon an easy ride, either. “Labour has taken a hard road in this,” said the MP when pushed on his party’s position. “It would be in a way easier for us either just to say yes we are hundred percent with the people who want to revert a referendum result or yes we are with the people who want to leave. But I think the duty on the Labour party is to bring people together whether they voted leave or remain.”

As a student looking to the future, it is hard not to be disturbed by the state of British politics. All that seems to unite the country right now is a complete loss of confidence in both Labour and the Conservatives. The Liberal Democrats and Plaid Cymru positions are also not without controversy. Both representatives were met with indignation. “Are you going to ignore 17.4 million people?” one audience member shouted at Davey. 

One of the final questions of the night came from a Jesus undergraduate: “Do the panellists think that nationalism is important?” Saville Roberts identified her party’s independence position as an effort to give Wales “a place in the world”. Davey called for patriotism that respects other countries, as did Burgon who said he was an internationalist. Braverman chastised an “unhelpful” left-wing guilt around national pride. This question got to the heart of Britain’s intractable dilemma. National identity means very different things to different people: that’s always been the case. But now, every single policy decision is drawn along these varying scales of nationalism and internationalism. 

This article has been written by Finn Ranson and the opinions expressed are those of the author. 

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