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50 minutes
First broadcast:
Friday 06 May 2011

Jonathan Dimbleby chairs the live debate from Harrow High School in London with Jeremy Hunt, Secretary of State for Culture, Quentin Letts, Daily Mail columnist, Shirley Williams, the Liberal Democrat peer and Douglas Alexander, Shadow Foreign Secretary.

Producer: Victoria Wakely.

  • This week's panel

    Quentin Letts is the Daily Mail’s parliamentary sketch-writer and theatre critic. He has been named as Britain’s most prolific journalist. Watching MPs during discussion of Bin Laden’s death he was not impressed: “It is a Chamber without a Thatcher or a Rev Ian Paisley. It is a Chamber which clutches its neck and frets about ‘sending out the wrong message’. Al Qaeda plots to blow us to smithereens. Its adherents yell insults at the decadent West. We respond by addressing them like anger-management counsellors; bending backwards to understand, hesitating to condemn, listening with heads cocked at the approved liberal angle.” Once described as a serial peddler of titbits to diary pages, one journalist commented that no media diary could function without him. In 1991, he became editor of the Telegraph’s Peterborough diary and began writing parliamentary sketches. In 2001, he joined the Daily Mail where he revived its parliamentary sketch, and went on to introduce the satirical column, "Clement Crabbe". In 2009 his column was published for the first time under his own name. That year also saw the publication of his book Fifty People Who Buggered Up Britain, in which Ed Balls, David Blunkett, John Birt and Margaret Thatcher joined the list. Last year he won "Critic of the Year" at the British Press Awards. The judges called Letts a “phenomenon always out there trudging theatreland, prolific and highly entertaining.”

    Douglas Alexander is Shadow Foreign Secretary. In Government he was Secretary of State for International Development for three years and in 2008 he travelled to Islamabad to announce a doubling of British aid to Pakistan over the following three years. The increase made Pakistan second only to India as the recipient of the UK's largest aid programme worldwide. He campaigned for a yes vote in the AV referendum but thought that Nick Clegg made a “fundamental error” in “acceding to David Cameron's demand to have this referendum on the same day as important local elections and national elections as well.” Last year he co-chaired David Miliband’s campaign for the Labour leadership. His choice of brother was a surprise as he was thought to be closer to Ed, having holidayed with him several times and worked with him in the run up to the election, Douglas as Chief election co-ordinator and Ed as author of the Labour manifesto. He had served under Tony Blair in a dual role as Secretary of State for Transport and Secretary of State for Scotland. He has also been Europe Minister. He was the youngest minister when he joined the government in 2001 at the age of 33 and was seen as one of Gordon Brown’s protégés, having worked as his researcher from 1990-91. He played a key role as campaign co-ordinator in the 2001 general election and has been MP for Paisley and Renfrewshire South since 1997.

    Baroness Williams of Crosby has been described as the Liberal Democrats’ “own national treasure” and is probably that party’s best known woman. Better known simply as Shirley Williams, she has built a distinguished career as a politician and academic on both sides of the Atlantic and she is the former Liberal Democrat leader in the House of Lords. She told delegates to her party’s spring conference this year that the Government’s planned NHS reforms were “lousy” and "stealth privatisation”. Delegates went on to vote for an amendment objecting to the "damaging and unjustified market-based approach". She wants to see more challenges to Conservative policies: "I think some of my colleagues believe that being in a coalition means that once the leadership, or any part of the leadership, has announced a policy, which may be a policy that comes almost entirely from the Conservative side, it is then your obligation as a loyal Liberal Democrat to make that happen. This is not my view at all. It is misplaced loyalty." She is the daughter of the writer Vera Brittain and was steeped in politics from childhood. Becoming a Labour MP in 1964, she was a member of the Wilson and Callaghan governments. Once tipped to become Britain’s first woman Prime Minister, she has been a forceful commentator on social justice, poverty, women’s rights, and on pro-European issues. As Secretary of State for Education (1976-79), she championed Comprehensive Schools. After losing her seat in 1979, she joined the breakaway ‘Gang of Four’ and co-founded the Social Democratic Party in 1981, later becoming its President. She was the first SDP MP, winning Crosby in 1981. Since then, she has held lecturing posts at Cambridge and in the US at Princeton, Berkeley, and Harvard.

    Jeremy Hunt is Secretary of State for Culture, Media & Sport, a post he shadowed for three years in Opposition. In December he was took over Vince Cable’s responsibilities for media and telecoms, which includes what Hunt called the “very, very hot potato” of News Corporation’s proposed takeover of BskyB. In April he said he was minded to approve the merger after an offer by News Corp to spin off Sky News as an independent company. Rival media groups dismissed News Corp's offer as a "whitewash" and said they would "vigorously contest" it. Jeremy’s department has been consulting on the move and he is expected to announce very soon whether he will accept News Corp’s undertakings or refer the merger to the Competition Commission. Meanwhile the Office of Fair Trading has informed him that the undertakings offered by News Corp, “are unlikely to be practically and financially viable over the long term”. The son of a naval officer, he describes himself as an entrepreneur, having founded two successful businesses before coming into Parliament; one of his companies has become the UK’s largest publisher of guides and websites, aimed at helping young people find the right course or college. His business was partly inspired by his experiences when travelling and teaching English in Japan. He is a fluent Japanese speaker and was once voted “most fanciable” MP in a television poll, an experience he rates as the most embarrassing thing that has happened to him since becoming an MP for Surrey South West in 2005.

    Chairman: Jonathan Dimbleby
    Producer: Victoria Wakely

  • This week's topics

    The AV Referendum

    The Liberal Democrats' performance at the Local Elections

    The Liberal Democrats' position on N.H.S. reform

    Scottish Independence

    The death of Osama Bin Laden


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