In the shadows of the Queen’s Speech are four dark horses of potential apocalypse for the UK.
The theatre and ceremony of the State Opening of Parliament is not just a fantastic spectacle. It is a celebration of what lies at the heart of our extraordinary constitution: a meld of history and the contemporary exercise of power and a demonstration of how our institutions combine both continuity and change. I am less comfortable about how the present government has continued the Blair-ite habit of incorporating the jargon of party politics into Her Majesty’s address. It was a relief that Buckingham Palace or someone sensible stopped short of making her say ‘long term economic plan’, but we still heard her utter the words ‘Northern powerhouse’ and ‘metro mayors’. And we all do wonder why we need to bring forward legislation ‘to ensure there are no tax rises in income tax rates…’ etc., when such an increase can only be made by, er, legislation! So it is about as useful as Labour’s Ed Stone would have been.
The substance of a Queen’s Speech is always ‘can-do’ – and I support the principle behind every one of the measures announced. But it is what is not said in the Speech where the real challenges for this administration lie. Behind the reference to ‘Measures… to raise the productive potential of the economy’ is the real anxiety that the economic recovery has not seen the increase in productivity growth which most economists expected. The commitment to ‘secure the future of the NHS’: if only it were so easy as saying that! But I am confident the government will. There are however four horses of potential apocalypse which are galloping apace in the shadows of this fine prose.
The first lies behind the words about continuing ‘the work of bringing the public finances under control and reducing the deficit’. This will be twice as hard to achieve as in the last parliament. The low hanging fruit has all been harvested. The Chancellor has already embarked on the painful reality of demanding further cuts from non-protected departments, such as the from Home Office (police), from Local Government, and another £1 billion from Defence, which threatens to take spending below the two per cent of GDP Nato threshold. Whether we can achieve this fairly and equitably while continuing such a generous settlement for other departments such as DFID, remains to be seen. £12 billion must come out of welfare, but while the intention is to protect 60 per cent of the welfare budget. And despite the Prime Minister’s victory over the EU Budget last year, our payments to support the EU budget now far exceed the aid programme. We can justify supporting aid to support the poorest in the world, but how do we justify cutting defence, police and social services to support our rich European neighbours?
The second is behind the promise of a ‘secure and lasting constitutional settlement’ for Scotland and Wales, and the changes to Standing Orders to provide for ‘English Votes on English Measures’. There is widespread concern that last year’s referendum, far from settling the future of Scotland’s position in the UK, has left more uncertainty than ever. The rampant performance of the SNP in Scotland will not be assuaged by the latest round of appeasement, represented by ‘the vow’, the Smith Commission’s proposals and the pledge to maintain the remnants of the Barnett Formula. Indeed, the Barnett Formula settles part of the Scottish block grant on the basis of what is decided in England. It therefore offers a pretext for Scottish MPs to show interest in purely English measures. The SNP promised that the referendum would settle the Scottish question ‘for a generation’. A generation can prove to be a short time in politics.
The third dark horse is whether the government can live up to its intention to ‘continue to play a leading role in global affairs’. ISIL and Russia are the two most immediate threats, which hardly impinge at all on our domestic debate. We should be concerned that a leading Washington Post columnist should write that ‘Britain resigns as a world power’ and we should be asking whether continued cuts in Defence and the diplomatic service are compatible with the mantra set out by William Hague that ‘there should be no strategic shrinkage’ in our global role. The UK’s vulnerability to global events increases as we become less prepared to contribute at times of global crisis.
And that brings us to the fourth horse, which concerns the renegotiation of our relationship with the EU. The forthcoming referendum looks innocuous, in the shape of the Bill presented to Parliament this week. But the Prime Minister’s renegotiation will determine how the nation votes, and in turn this will be a defining moment in the history of our nation. The EU’s control over our national laws and its influence over the life and politics or our nation is insidious. It has sapped our national self-confidence, promoted division between nations and regions within the UK, and swallows increasing quantities of our national resources – more than the entire and now enlarged overseas aid budget – while the Chancellor is embarked on further cuts to local government, to the police, to our diplomatic service and armed forces. I support the Prime Minister’s efforts to keep the UK in a ‘reformed EU’ and his wish ‘to reform the EU and fundamentally change Britain’s relationship with it’ (PM, Hansard, Col 1122, 23 March 2015). But how is this to be achieved? Failure and the wrong referendum result could see the UK subsumed as a second class member into the emerging EU superstate.
That is the start of a much longer article. Watch this space!
*Bernard Jenkin MP is the Conservative Member of Parliament for Harwich and North Essex since 1992. He has served as Shadow Secretary of State for Defence and Chair of the Public Administration Select Committee.