Number 10 is pushing some deeply divisive measures

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The Independent Online

A few years ago, the Foreign Office conducted a survey of Asian opinion on Britain. It discovered the most common images associated with Britain were the Household Cavalry and thatched cottages. There is nothing in yesterday's ancient ceremonies that would disturb that impression of a kingdom frozen in the past.

As a dash of Ruritanian colour on a drab day, the ceremonial is a welcome relief. As a symbol of a modern democracy the protocol is, at best, a harmless eccentricity, but, at worst, roots Parliament in the bygone past rather than a functioning part of present society. Nor do subsequent proceedings in the Commons catapult us into the ambience of the 21st century. On the contrary, the party political knockabout between Tony Blair and Michael Howard would have been only too readily recognisable to the audience of the exchanges between Disraeli and Gladstone. They went at it with gusto and verve, but their gladiatorial combat is badly out of joint with modern society.

If MPs want to assert the primacy of the Commons, they should insist the Queen's Speech is followed by a comprehensive statement from the Prime Minister that matches in scope and status the address on the State of the Union of the US President.

As a prospectus for the last full session of Parliament before a general election, this year's content of the Queen's Speech is brave, almost to being foolhardy. This is not a unifying programme designed to bring Labour together in anticipation of an election campaign.

There are praiseworthy measures that will command popular support. But little of them will be heard above the clamour caused by the deeply divisive measures on which Number 10 has insisted.

Most contentious is the proposal for university top-up fees. It is impossible to sell this programme as giving priority to fairness, while at its heart is a licence for Ivy League universities to charge fees that will capitalise on their superior market pulling power over the former polys. For a decade, Tony Blair has established his credentials to boldness and radicalism, not by taking on the establishment of Britain, but by standing up to opinion in his own party.

On top-up fees he may have picked a fight on which Labour will stand up to him, and stand by their manifesto, which ruled out a measure that will make a university education and personal debt synonymous.

Then there is the outrageous plan for an all-appointed House of Lords, limiting modernisation to moving from the 15th-century principle of heredity to the 18th-century principle of political patronage. No reformed Lords will command the support of the British people as long as the people are excluded from any say in the choice of its members.

The Queen's Speech is New Labour in that it is heavy on social authoritarianism. The most striking moment was when Mr Howard denounced the proposal to take the children of failed asylum- seekers into care as a step too far for "any decent Government". Labour should be the champion of a pluralist, multicultural society. We must not concede that territory to be occupied, however implausibly, by the new Tory management.