There is, indeed, nothing that we British do better than the pageantry and ritual of big state occasions. The Queen’s Speech ceremony was thoroughly modernised in the Tony Blair years, when the Lord Chancellor was allowed to walk down steps forwards rather than backwards, and Silver Stick-in-Waiting was decreed surplus to requirements, leaving only Gold Stick – Lord Guthrie – and a few score flunkeys and fainting pages.
It was in the New Labour era, too, that the ancient tradition began of putting political slogans in the Monarch’s mouth and of marvelling at the dissonant results. Yesterday, Her Majesty was required to announce that her Government would continue to deliver its “long-term plan”, and to say: “A key priority for my ministers will be to continue to build an economy that rewards those who work hard.”
The ceremonial flummery aside, however, the Queen’s Speech is a chance to reflect on the Government’s prospectus for the future: in this case for the 11 months before the general election. That is why the governing and opposition parties put so much effort into trying to impose a simple, unifying message on what is necessarily a disjointed list of proposed Bills.
David Cameron and Nick Clegg issued a joint statement yesterday in which they asserted that their legislative programme was “unashamedly pro-work, pro-business and pro-aspiration”. That hardly covers a 5p plastic-bag charge, for example, but they claimed that the “centrepiece” of the Speech was “ground-breaking pensions reform”. That was a reasonable attempt to pluck a small but significant liberalisation from the bran tub and to use it for symbolic purposes. But it does not really work, because the change is supported by the Labour Party.
Most of the Bills announced yesterday are sensible but not sensational. Many of them are carried over from the previous session. Others are minor tidying-up measures. Some are the minor products of trade-offs between the coalition parties: the Conservatives get a trivial “recognition” of marriage in the tax system; the Liberal Democrats claim credit for increasing childcare support. And one was designed purely to embarrass the Labour Party: the Bill to impose higher penalties on employers who fail to pay their staff the minimum wage.
Overall, the Queen’s Speech hardly shifted the terms of the debate for the long campaign for the general election. The Government is making progress in closing the deficit, and hopes that it will be given credit for having cut it by a third, when it was elected on a promise to have eliminated it altogether by next year.
Ed Miliband’s response to the Speech was a considered one. He adopted a chastened tone, saying that the established parties needed to respond to the views of the people as expressed in last month’s European and council elections. This allowed him to shrug off Tory attacks, chiding hecklers for engaging in the sort of politics that people dislike. Nevertheless, the Labour leader’s tendency to speak in grand terms about “deep problems” of the British economy that go back several decades too often leads him to windy and unconvincing generalisations.
The outlook for the next 11 months remains dominated by the economy and whether the voters judge that the Government has been competent enough to be entrusted with finishing the job.