Steve Richards: A Queen's Speech too far? Not if the Government turns radical

Today’s package shows that Labour can still make a positive difference

Share
Related Topics

A couple of years ago I saw a play in which a violent act was committed in the first scene. Or at least I thought I witnessed a violent act.

By the end of the play I was not so sure. I seem to remember that the play was one of Alan Ayckbourn's later works, staged in Scarborough. The device was certainly typical of his stagecraft, highlighting that what you see on the stage is not always what is actually happening. Or perhaps what you saw did happen, but does not make much sense in the light of subsequent events and therefore you conclude you did not see it at all.

The same phenomenon applies to politics. Quite often what we see is not what is in front of our eyes. When William Hague wore a baseball cap as Tory leader most voters saw a buffoon. Take a look at the photos now. He looked fine. Now he is more highly rated that would be a common verdict. When Brown was photographed on holiday the summer before last, we saw an awkward and out of touch leader wearing an old fashioned jacket. He was way behind in the polls by then. The same summer, Cameron looked cool in denim on a beach in Cornwall. If we had seen the same photos the year before when Brown was on his brief honeymoon we would have seen someone with a serious, business-like demeanour and noted Cameron's casual shallowness. Cameron's leadership was being called into question at the time. We choose what we want to see.

What do we see now? Largely we see a modernised Conservative party striding towards inevitable victory and a backward-looking Government limping towards chaotic defeat. That is the narrative and nothing is allowed to get in the way of it.

What is actually happening is more complicated, as today's Queen's Speech will demonstrate if we look carefully enough. The problem with Queen's Speeches is that there is never anything new in them. By the time a proposal is included in a legislative programme it has been announced several times before, at a party conference, in interviews and newspaper articles. Brown has made matters more familiar by announcing virtually the same programme twice, once in the summer in his so-called pre-legislative report and again in the autumn. The idea was based on the pre-budget report, in which Brown got to deliver two budgets each year. It has not worked as well in relation to the Queen's Speech. Today's address was previewed last July and any additions were announced during the space in between, not least in Brown's party conference speech, which was punctuated with so many proposals – most of them forgotten – that it sounded at times like a combination of a Queen's Speech and one of his longer budgets.

As a result the Queen's Speech tends each year to be a curious mix of the glitzy and anti-climactic. Today's rituals will almost certainly lead the TV bulletins tonight and the opening shots will convey a sense of regal grandeur as the Queen arrives to deliver the wooden prose. But already weariness accompanies the limited anticipation. On top of the familiarity of the ritual and the contents, the Government's opponents ask "What's the point?", a mood captured effectively by Nick Clegg in The Independent on Monday when he called for a constitutional revolution rather than an artificial event from a Government that faces an election next year. For nearly all commentators, and indeed most Labour MPs, a Conservative government is a certainty, indeed taken as an inevitability, and so they regard today's exercise as even more irrelevant than Clegg.

The event and what it signifies are being downplayed too much. There will not be new policies, but there will be an assortment of measures, some of them significant. This means that briefly at least the focus will be on policy, something of a novelty in itself. It is widely underestimated how important robust policies are in the run-up to elections. If anything the dynamic of British elections place a disproportionate focus on minute policy detail, as journalists seek weak points in a thousand press conferences and interviews. If there are televised leadership debates during the election the winner will have the most robust policies, and those that withstand the most intense scrutiny. Most of the time policy does not get much of a look in, but it will between now and the election.

On this basis the seemingly doomed Government has more of a case than is perceived. Today's package has a theme of sorts, a belief that government can make a positive difference to the elderly, the environment, the banking system, housing and the NHS.

"Smart government, not bigger government" is how ministers describe it, neurotically fearful of any talk about the state, although with Cameron arguing for a much smaller state the divide is pretty clear. It is an important division too, more interesting and honest than the one that has marked recent elections which in the end came down to "competence versus incompetence", a meaningless debate about the managerial qualities of either side. If we try to see what is happening in politics at the moment, rather than what we think is happening, we get another baseball cap moment. No one would argue that of itself today's measures will lead to celebratory street parties around the land or deserve to do so, but a few of the policies are measurably more radical than any of those put forward in 1997 when the partying went on for months.

I suspect most voters will welcome guarantees in relation to hospital treatments, even if in theory they oppose targets in the NHS. Targets sound sinister. Guarantees are more reassuring and convey a sense of a contract between government, tax payer and patient over how resources are deployed. The Conservatives will be living dangerously if they lift targets too quickly. Similarly today's proposals for elderly social care are more courageous than they seem in that most will pay more to help those on low incomes. When the proposal was first mooted Brown was terrified about "stealth tax" headlines. At least he still went ahead in the end even though the headlines came as predicted. Similarly the plans for climate change, while not as zealous as some environmentalists would wish, are more daring than seemed likely two years ago.

Perhaps none of the proposals will be implemented by the election. Maybe they will all turn into dust, but they mark a departure from cautious incremental approaches usually adopted by the Government. The Conservatives' equivalent proposals have an echo with the mid 1990s, while their Euro-scepticism takes us further back, and their plans for spending cuts to 1981. Yet it is the Conservatives who are the party of change and today's proposals from the Government will probably be dismissed as backward looking.

We see what we choose to see. I have just phoned one of the friends who saw the play with me at Scarborough to ask if she could remember the title. She could not even recall the scene or the theatrical device. Perhaps it never happened and maybe Hague and Brown did look ridiculous in those photos. But I am sure they did not. At least I think I am sure.

s.richards@independent.co.uk

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

£32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped commission: SThree: Does earning a 6 figu...

Recruitment Genius: SEO Executive

£18000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: New Lift Sales Executive - Lift and Elevators

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A challenging opportunity for a...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Errors & Omissions: A widow’s tale with an unexpected twist

John Rentoul
 

For all his faults, Russell Brand is utterly sincere, something politicians should emulate

Janet Street-Porter
The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

The saffron censorship that governs India

Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

How did fandom get so dark?

Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

Disney's mega money-making formula

'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

Lobster has gone mainstream

Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

14 best Easter decorations

Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

Paul Scholes column

Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

The future of GM

The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

Britain's mild winters could be numbered

Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

Cowslips vs honeysuckle

It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss