If just some of today's Queen's Speech becomes law we will be living under the most radical and important government of our times.
By Ian Dunt
Today's Queen's Speech confirms the extent of the coalition's ambition. Its scope is impressive, but if it accomplishes just three of its objectives it will be considered one of the most radical governments of our time.
Cutting the deficit is plainly at the front and centre of the political agenda, and it was mentioned in the first line of the speech, despite not needing a piece of legislation per se. Today taught us little we didn't already know about this process. The emergency Budget and the autumn spending review will be far more important milestones.
The Tories have ensured, despite their generosity in other policy areas, that this takes precedence over other commitments. Plainly this needs to be sorted, although I won't lie: it sticks in the throat to see the public sector pay for the private sector's incompetence and inefficiency - the very same qualities with which it originally argued the case for deregulation. But one glance across Europe reminds us that the alternative is not worth thinking about.
The second objective is civil liberties. A 'great repeal bill' will scrape unnecessary criminal legislation, of which there was a great deal during New Labour's time in office - one new offence every day, to be precise. This is only half the battle. The government will need to stand firm when the right-wing press whips itself up into an authoritarian frenzy over some mock-outrage or other. That's why Nick Clegg's talk of a "mechanism to block pointless new criminal offences" was so heartening. This mechanism must presumably be the British Bill of Rights, which featured in the extended policy document we received last week.
The bill promises to transpose all the measures in the European Convention of Human Rights, meaning we can safely scrap the Human Rights Act (HRA) without too much worry. But clearly it will also include new safeguards for British freedom. This needs to be accomplished quickly and with a level head. Sometime in the future - a year from now, or perhaps 20 years from now - Britain will suffer another terrorist attack. The foolish and wrongheaded will suggest we counter that threat by dismantling everything that makes this country a threat to fascists and puritans in the first place. A Bill of Rights can safeguard our freedoms and neutralise a Lib-Con split on the HRA, even if the distinction is essentially semantic.
The third objective is parliamentary reform. It appears that the referendum bill, which will allow voters to chose their voting system, will also feature extensive parliamentary reform, including fixed-term parliaments. House of Lords reform did not get a bill, but a committee will provide specific recommendations "by the end of the year". This has never been a subject that got me out of bed in the morning, and the Lords often provided a useful bulwark against some of Tony Blair's more insane tendencies. But after 100 years of fudge we need closure on this issue. It's embarrassing and beneath us for the status quo to endure.
Remember Blair committed himself to Lords reform in 1997 and failed to deliver despite his vast majority. If the Lib-Con government accomplishes it, this should be considered achievement enough.
There are a great many other things in the bill, such as welfare reform or the expansion of the academies programme, which are far less positive, but it is on these three key issues - the deficit, political reform and civil liberties - that the coalition government will be judged. The deficit reduction didn't need a bill, while House of Lords reform doesn't have one yet, but that makes little difference to their central role in the perception of the new government.
I've been very critical of the decision to go with the Tories. To me, the Lib Dems and Labour are more suitable bedfellows, and the glimpse of proportional representation was enough for me to cast all other considerations to one side. But one has to admire the scope and ambition of what is going on now.
Lib Dem negotiators, such as David Laws and Chris Huhne, clearly deserve praise and admiration for the results they brought back to HQ. If those short-lived talks with Labour were indeed just a way of strengthening their hand with the Tories then their gamble paid off. Note that issues around civil liberties and political reform (barring House of Lords reform) were quickly given bills, while foreign policy and public health issues, for instance, were put on the backburner. That's solid negotiating.
But much of the credit has to go to the Conservatives. I've said some unpleasant things about David Cameron in the past, and I retain the view that his opportunism takes precedence over his principles. But he had the choice of forming an ad hoc coalition, a government bandage for an irritated electorate which would have been designed to last only as long as it was in his interests. Instead, from his first press conference on May 7th it was clear he had adopted a much more radical, visionary stance. He incorporated the Lib Dems into the government wholesale, and negotiated a system that would ensure the government survived five years, regardless of how controversial the 55% no-confidence clause is. Did he behave this way out of idealism or because he needed a stable government to secure spending cuts? Probably the latter, but that does not detract from his ambition and resolve.
For that, we have to give him credit. Cameron has demonstrated leadership and vision. This Queen's Speech is the most radical and important we have seen in our lifetime.
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