Leading Article: Royalty meets radicalism in Wonderland

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Every day in every way, we go on trying to adjust. Tony Blair rises to the despatch box, and we look about thinking, "Where am I?" Labour politicians are called "Minister", and their views are called "government policy". Everything is the reverse of the way it has been since more than half the population can remember. What kind of Lewis Carroll world is this? Michael Heseltine is spotted wandering the pavement, where formerly a car would whisk him off without any of us noticing anything but the outriders.

The most disconcerting thing about yesterday's pomp and pretension was hearing our domestically bespectacled monarch recite left-wing language - "my government", she said, will "attack" youth unemployment, obliterate competition in the health service, and (as she didn't say) generally set about the ears of "my" previous government. (Actually it's not her government, it's ours - but that reform can wait a while.)

On the one side, we are all still startled by how much has changed; yet at the same time we are pinching ourselves and asking how much has really changed. In his response to the Queen's Speech , Mr Blair pointed up the way in which cartoonists, commentators and saloon-bar pontificators had falsely repeated during the election campaign that there was little difference between the Old Tories and New Labour. Thankfully, it was never a trap this paper fell into: to us, it always seemed clear that Mr Blair meant what he said when he promised (warned?) that he would be more radical than people realised. And he has already started to fulfil that promise.

On some fronts, Labour plans to undo what it sees as Tory error: health service competition; inadequately stern opposition to the private possession of handguns; poor control of food quality. Mr Blair's government continues where continuation seems right, leaving intact many laws that it opposed while in opposition but now accepts in government. But yesterday's 22- Bill programme was mostly not of the undoing kind. Overwhelmingly, the legislative contents of the Queen's Speech aim to set a new course for government.

What tentative interpretations should we place on the "project" (as New Labour MPs horribly call it) thus far? Uncharitably, we might start by wondering if the Notting Hill set have been afflicted with a little surge of New Puritanism. After all, there is quite a bit of banning in this Queen's Speech. Handguns for a start (hip hip) - but also tobacco advertising (hurray), unruly behaviour by children and neighbourhood reprobates. But it would be a cheap jibe: laws are usually about preventing things, rather than enabling them, and Labour is no different to any other government in this. After all, those things are well worth banning. Indeed, since we're in the banning mode, why not ban phrases like "the project" from our political language? Could we also delete the phrase "on-message" before it infects every part of our national life? And (by the by) what happened to the ambition to ban the killing of foxes for sport?

It is good, however, to see that the eagerness to ban things has not yet ranged into the realm of banning newspapers' freedom to inquire into the messy behaviour of public people by introducing a restrictive privacy law: Mr Blair should think very carefully before aiming that measure at the statute book.

Banning, however, is not what government is mainly about, and it is surely not what New Labour should be about. It should be about creating opportunity. The minimum wage might be seen as another "banning" measure - banning employers from paying their workers the lowest rate they can get away with. In fact, though, the minimum wage is about creating the opportunity for people to break free of reliance on welfare. It is good, too, to see that Mr Blair has placed this measure in front of any attempt to legislate on trade-union representation: here he has got the priorities right.

Overall, the Speech is a good balance between grand social measures (about which we still know too little to judge, notably in the Big Issue of education), and smaller but significant changes of direction. But there is one area where it seems fair to pose sharp questions, and raise our own standard: constitutional change. Creating a New Britain is first of all about social reform, yes; but it is also important that this government takes its historic opportunity to effect deeper political reforms.

Yesterday witnessed a healthy start. Incorporating the European Convention on Human Rights will effect a profound change in our political and judicial culture, enabling ordinary people to see their rights fought over in their own national courts, and judged by their own judges. Nobody should underestimate the significance of this change. Equally, devolving power to Scotland and Wales (as those nations will surely vote in referendums to do) will bring about a long-term shift in our culture. Bringing back strategic government for London, where nearly one in 10 British people lives, is no small matter, either: only pray that Labour keeps the new authority streamlined, and avoids creating a monster to rival the wasteful old GLC.

But what happened to reform of the House of Lords? Will that promise be honoured, or is it just a vague threat, to be held in reserve and used only if peers attempt to frustrate the Commons? Why not a White Paper on that, as on freedom of information?

Reforming the Lords is not to be ducked. Moreover, it will be an immensely popular measure, everywhere except in the House of Lords. Abolishing the voting rights of hereditary peers is a long overdue reform that the nation overwhelmingly wants. This government's true radicalism will first be tested by its social programme - but it will eventually be proved by its determination to effect root and branch constitutional change. And that must, ultimately, include voting reform too. We are willing to wait a parliamentary session or two; but we hope that those new young backbenchers, who by a large majority believe in electoral reform, will not grow old and cynical before they get the chance to transform our political system.