New Labour's programme is chilling and Draconian

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The Independent Culture
THESE DAYS, the Queen's Speech is more symbolic than significant. By the time Her Majesty arrived at the House of Lords the course that the Government has set for the next 12 months had been made plain in a series of ministerial statements which began at the governing party's annual conference and ended with the Chancellor's pre-Budget statement. A series of judicious leaks and carefully planned indiscretions always allow political journalists to speculate about new policies days before the Irish State Coach arrives at the House of Lords.

So, 48 hours before the Queen promised "measures to improve bus services and reduce road congestion", John Prescott was photographed in the driving seat. But the Queen's Speech has more than purely ceremonial significance. By compressing a year's legislative programme into a few thousand words, it helps the nation identify the themes - indeed, the spirit behind - the Government's intentions.

There is no doubt about the message that the Prime Minister wants the speech to convey. The headline is "Fairness and Enterprise". But the crucial sub-text is the old and meaningless mantra "Modernise or Die". The Queen promised to modernise in turn "the country and its institutions - the economy - the welfare system - the powers and duties of trustees and the United Nations". And modernisation means, in this context, whatever the Government wants it to mean. Indeed, the Queen's Speech is filled with classic examples of new-speak. The Government "will continue to implement policies to reward good teaching" (impose performance related pay on a bitterly resentful profession), "generate more investment in public infrastructure" (partially privatise London Underground and the Post Office) and "re- inforce local government to make it more innovative and accountable" (break Old Labour's hegemony in the city councils).

It will also "reinforce people's obligations to society by linking benefit entitlement to compliance with community sentences". In that single sentence the Government sets out the whole shortcomings of its philosophy. There is no doubt that in golf clubs all over Britain men and women will rejoice that petty criminals are "not getting away with it". But were the Home Secretary more concerned with reducing crime than creating a reputation for being tough on law and order he might consider the consequences of his proposal. A young thief, denied unemployment benefit because he failed to cut the grass in his local park, is only made more likely to thieve again. In a civilised society welfare payments are not rewards for good behaviour, they are the right of every citizen.

But then, in a civilised society, draconian legislation is only introduced in times of national peril. Yet the Government is to take "permanent powers to respond to all forms of terrorism". A succession of Labour Shadow Home Secretaries (including Jack Straw and Tony Blair) denounced the Prevention of Terrorism Act as an affront to civil liberties - tolerated, if at all, because the tragic conflict in Northern Ireland made it a brief necessity. Now (just as peace seems possible) instead of repealing what was once emergency legislation, the special laws are to be extended to cover Greenpeace demonstrators and hunt saboteurs.

Special anti-terrorism laws have only one purpose. They deny men and women, designated as potential terrorists , the protection available under the general criminal law. It is because that protection was denied that so many suspect IRA bombers were wrongfully convicted. But the Government has turned its back on Labour's libertarian past. Yesterday the Queen announced, with proper regal calm, that "a bill will be introduced to give the courts themselves the power to decide whether certain defendants should be tried by jury or by magistrates".

The Government defends its determination to reduce the right to jury trial with the claim that its "reform" will make justice speedier and less expensive. That is why, in pursuit of that managerial objective, there will be a reduction in "overcomplex regulation". The removal of regulations may, or may not, be desirable - depending on the regulations removed. The Government's intention to "make unlawful for public bodies racially to discriminate" is wholly to be applauded. So is the decision "to establish a Strategic Rail Authority". Each proposal amounts to a new regulation. They should be welcomed both on their individual merits and as a sign that the Government does not always believe that the least government is the best government.

Not that the Prime Minister and Home Secretary are invariably determined to reduce the central Government's power. The Freedom of Information Bill enacts "the people's right to know" in little more than name. For ministers will be empowered to prevent the exposure of papers they regard as private and the Independent Commissioner will not have the power to overrule them. Of course, the Queen - reading the text which her ministers drafted - merely announced the title of a measure which, on the basis of its name alone, seems wholly admirable. One of the features of the 1999 Queen's Speech is the way in which it managed to make the barely acceptable sound unequivocally desirable. It is the opening paragraphs - generally declamatory and self-congratulatory - that reveal the most important elements in the Government's thinking. Certainly - and it is a cause for rejoicing - "more people are in work today than ever before, with employment up by 700,000 and long-term unemployment halved" and, "the new Working Families Tax Credit is raising the income of working families". But there is still too little help for the desperately poor - the families without work or the prospect of work. The Queen's Speech confirms that Gordon Brown draws a sharp distinction between the deserving and the undeserving poor. Indeed, the whole package of social and economic reforms seem based on the dubious principle that if the economy grows more prosperous in general every responsible member of society will share in that improvement.

For all its slickness there is a chillingly Old Testament quality about New Labour. The industrious are to be rewarded and the indolent to be punished. If society was really divided into those simplistic categories the Queen's Speech and the spirit that it reveals might provide the basis for an ideal society. It takes us only one small step towards a more compassionate version of welfare capitalism.