Radio Review

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The Independent Culture
If I had a pound for every time I've heard a caller on a radio phone-in say "I don't know why politicians can't just stop squabbling and all pull together", I could - well, I could probably fund the national social security budget for some years to come, which would be one solution to the problem set for Frank Field and George Walden in The National Interest last night on Radio 4. It's possible that the idea for this series came to Jonathan Dimbleby after a session on Any Answers: politicians from opposing parties actually do stop squabbling and get together to thrash out a mutually acceptable policy, which is then put before a panel of experts to see whether they're convinced.

The result is a strange blend of Analysis and The Great Egg Race - in case you've forgotten, that was a television programme in which teams of engineers were asked to build, say, a solar-powered lawn-mower using only the materials to hand (scissors, milk-bottle, bicycle wheels and gaffer tape). Following an initial evidence-gathering session, the MPs went into conclave to stick together their bits. As they began, Dimbleby's commentary could be heard over the top. Professor Heinz Wolff (spectacles, bow-tie) used to do something rather similar. "At this point," Dimbleby murmured, "the two MPs began to sift through the evidence they had heard... Could they devise a scheme that could stand up to close and sceptical scrutiny?"

The answer seemed to be "No" - the panel of experts were distinctly unimpressed by their somewhat vague package of measures (essentially, people would be compelled to pay into privately owned pension funds, and income support would be replaced by training). So much for the national interest, then.

But did it prove that politicians can pull together? I might have thought so, if the Labour MP involved hadn't been Frank Field, whose thinking on social security is well known to stand some way apart from the mainstream of his party; getting him to agree with George Walden was a little like talking a sheep into vegetarianism.

More disturbing, to anybody who heard last year's excellent Consequences programme on the Fowler pension reforms, was their assumption that a compulsory private pension could be a solution: Norman Fowler tried to push that one through, and failed. For all the two MPs' insistence that they had political realities in mind, you wondered if they really thought this was a runner. That was the thing about The Great Egg Race, too: the machines always worked; but you never thought they'd end up in the shops.