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28 June 2023

Why Question Time has had its time

The conditions that made the political panel show a good idea in 1979 no longer exist.

By Will Lloyd

Question Time is dead, isn’t it? Pre-pandemic, the topical debate panel show drew around four million viewers. That audience has reportedly halved in the years since. If you take a longer view, back to 1979 when Question Time first aired, the conditions that made it seem like a good idea then – panel show as democratic umbilical cord linking the people to the establishment – no longer exist.

Other, crueller, more direct conduits for people to express their views to the powerful have been invented. They are not moderated by anybody as polite as Fiona Bruce. They are not moderated by anybody at all.

[See also: How Deep England fell out of love with Boris Johnson]

On 22 June Question Time did a stunt edition in the melancholic end-o’-the pier Essex town of Clacton-on-Sea. All of the audience had voted for Brexit, and most of them still backed the decision to leave the European Union. My mother is from Essex, and I spent time in Clacton when I was a child and a teenager. The town never symbolised anything to me other than the decrepit Englishness – the smell of frying doughnuts, blue tattoos turned green with age on leathery skin – romanticised by Morrissey in “Everyday is Like Sunday”.

Ever since Matthew Parris wrote a scathing column about the place in 2014 (“Tories should turn their backs on Clacton”), and the post-Brexit media zeroed in on England’s apparently deprived coastal communities as a way of explaining why Leave won, Clacton has not been Clacton. Its hot-dog stalls and fading amusement arcades have come to stand for a peculiar, half-articulate form of nostalgic English rage.

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Bruce addressed Clactonites with the cheerful chumminess of a colonial medical officer encountering their first native in Sudan around 1878. Did she pack her skull-measuring equipment, I wondered, as she asked: “What do they think of it all [Brexit] now?” Mostly, they think Brexit is good. Being patronised by the BBC is unlikely to change their minds. I imagine that before they do, Question Time will be no more.

[See also: The madness of King Charles’s coronation]

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This article appears in the 28 Jun 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The war comes to Russia