If we're all to be commoners, why keep the pomp and ceremony?

The Lords reform is turning into a river of treacle through which the Prime Minister must wade
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
LORD ALI'S single diamond ear-stud glistened against his red and white robes, a small gesture of non-conformity in the midst of the most ritualistic event in British public life. So lavish is this ceremony - despite the minor nips and tucks applied this year - that the odd rakish jewel on a new peer goes unnoticed; it is just one sparkle in a sea of what the fashion editors would call "sensual fabrics for autumn".

The State Opening of Parliament is the only place outside one of the more lavish catwalk shows where white fur is the dominant fabric. Even the modernizers had succumbed to their hairdressers. Baroness Jay, who is pursuing the abolition of hereditary voting rights with the zeal of a personal jihad, stood like a stately tribune of the people before Her Majesty. Vying for the sartorial laurels was the Commons leader Margaret Beckett in a very classy black suit with not an auburn-tinted hair out of place.

What is intriguing about making changes to established ways of doing things is that they encourage us to look in a more critical light at everything else. Reforming governments cannot predict what other radical appetites their reforms will unleash.

So Margaret Thatcher set out to attack those parts of British life which she found wanting and contributed to a process, still continuing, in which we assess institutions unsparingly, including the ones like the Lords that she would have considered sacrosanct. This magnifies the conundrum of the present Government's constitutional reform: if we are so thoroughly modern, more Calvin Klein than Ungaro, why are we still doing all this ceremonial stuff at all?

New Labour has mastered the knack of inserting its key buzz-words into dry policy statements, so the Queen, whether she liked it or not, was "on message", echoing sing-song cadences of Blairese. She announced "work for those who can, security for those who can't" and parroted Labour's wishful thinking on local councils transformed to "provide high quality services on the basis of sound finances".

A small voice inside Her Majesty must yearn to ad lib something like: "I wouldn't hold your breaths waiting for that one." The convention of the Queen reading her Prime Minister's speech sounds increasingly anachronistic in a speech peppered with the word "modernization".

While the structures and settlements of the United Kingdom are undergoing the planned upheavals, it is still unclear where these will end and what the consequences of a constitutional battle will be for the Government on the way. The substance of the speech was unofficially dominated by this difficulty. Lords reform is turning into a river of treacle through which the Prime Minister must wade in order to reach the promised New Britain on the other side. The Government has approached the reform as single swingeing cull of the Lordships without proposing what kind of second chamber will follow.

The trouble with this clean beheading of the Lords is that it gives them, in the memorable words of Lord Onslow, every reason to "behave like football hooligans" while they still have the chance

Mr Blair looked strained and a little troubled yesterday. He is known to be concerned about the amount of time reform of the second chamber is set to soak up in the coming parliamentary year. As a keen judge of popular priorities, he is also well aware that the public has other concerns.

So the Government's key policy of welfare made its return to the parliamentary state only five months after the departure of the combustible duo, Harriet Harman and Frank Field, from the Department of Social Security. This is an audacious move. By re-stating that welfare is at the heart of New Labour's project, and that every applicant for benefits, be they single mothers or disabled, must turn up for an interview before they receive payments, Mr Blair is asserting that he is intent on attacking the culture of worklessness on all fronts.

But beyond this stringent assessment of who is not employed and why, the Government still needs a bigger vision of what the welfare state should be. Otherwise, departmental disagreements proliferate. Alistair Darling, Minister for Social Security, is known to favour a compulsory system of contributions to the second "Stakeholder" pension announced in the speech yesterday. The Chancellor, however, fears that these will be seen as a disguised tax-hike. Resolution of such discrepancies will require strong personal leadership from Mr Blair.

Otherwise, this was an exercise in good housekeeping by the Government, tying up loose ends such as the Age of Consent Bill, delayed by the Lords on rather reasonable grounds, as it happens, and the extension of the London plan for an elected mayor to other city authorities.

Only one bomb ticked loudly and that was Jack Straw's Asylum Bill, couched rather slyly as making provisions for asylum seekers "more effective" - as in more effective at keeping them out. This bill, shielded so far from discussion, is likely to cause some difficulties in the Labour Party, where toughness on asylum-seekers has traditionally ranked as proof of Tory heartlessness.

But two rather important dogs did not bark yesterday, namely the Government's plans for the future of the education and health services. Mr Blair knows that the present proposals in both areas are only holding measures. They fail to answer the question of how the NHS will continue to finance itself as the claims upon its services grow. The answer is probably "with the aid of greater partnership with the private sector", but this is whispered only by the boldest of New Labour thinkers with the doors shut and the windows bolted.

An outstanding misnomer in the speech was the abolition of fund-holding GPs as "NHS modernization". For a start, fund holding is not really abolished, only disguised by the requirement that local practices consult one another. Secondly, this makes no impact whatsover at the sharp end of health-care.

On the other great unspoken, the future of state education, there was only the bland reassurance that the status of teachers will be raised. Well and good. But it will achieve little without an open-minded assessment of why the state system fails children so widely and a readiness to consider radical change to the structure of schools in order to improve them.

When the hereditary peers have gone kicking and screaming back to their estates, when Edinburgh has its parliament, Wales its assembly and there is a mayor for Leeds, the standards of health and education will remain the matters on which the Government is judged to have succeeded or failed. A Queen's speech that lays out radicalism in the policy areas affecting our daily life as well as the grand constitutional sweep will really be worth listening to. Mr Blair should not delay it too long.

Comments