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Wednesday, November 18, 2009 

The Queen's last gasp.

The obvious response to the Queen's speech would to be to class it as the last gasp gesture of a government on its death bed; the sole remaining embers of a cigarette burnt down to the very end, offering not even the slightest nicotine kick; the last words of the condemned before being dropped through the trapdoor. For once, the obvious response is also the right one, although not necessarily for the reasons detailed by either Cameron or Clegg.

Clegg, in the increasingly hysterical fashion in which he seems to be deciding is the best way to lead his party, declared that the entire speech should have been cancelled so that politics could be "fixed". Cameron too, complained that "the biggest omission" was the cleaning up of expenses. Considering that the proposals from Sir Christopher Kelly in the main do not change anything with any great immediacy, except for the intake at the next election, the only real reason for urgency is to prove who has the hairiest shirt, as it was before. Clegg at least has purer motives in wanting the changing of the way we do politics as a whole, but the emphasis which both are continuing to place on the expenses scandal only encourages the view that nothing has changed, when it simply isn't the case. True, the complete changing of our system which some rather hopefully imagined might happen has not arrived, but then neither Labour and especially not the Tories have it in their interests to implement the likes of electoral reform. We're going to have to make do with what we have for now, and further alienating politics from the majority is not going to have a happy ending.

That said, there's not exactly anything to inspire absolutely anyone in this final dirge of bills. Labour has, unless it's saving the big hitters for the election, finally ran out of any remaining ideas it had. Cameron's ridiculously hyperbolic claim that this was the "most divisive, short-termist and shamelessly self-serving Queen's speech in living memory" was wrong, not because it's divisive, self-serving or short-termist, but because it serves absolutely no one, certainly not Labour themselves. The Tories will obviously claim that the commitment to end child poverty by 2020 is meant to embarrass them once they take over, but it would embarrass whoever's in power. Can anyone seriously believe that child poverty in its entirety will be ended at any point in time, let alone in 11 short years, without corners being cut or pledges being subtlety altered? Capitalism itself ensures that there will always be winners and losers; the poor, as the Bible earnestly predicted, will always be with us. It is, like Nick Clegg said while criticising the fiscal responsibility bill with its equivalent pledge of halving the deficit within 4 years, like legislating the pledge to get up in the morning, an empty gesture.

Empty gestures were however the order of the day, as Jenni Russell ruthlessly exposed in her critique of the "pupil and parent guarantees" in the education bill. Politics by magic wand is though increasingly popular: it's the exact same nonsense as "sending a message", whether it's through foreign policy or on drugs, somehow imagining that by raising cannabis back up to Class B the kids will realise that this isn't a safe drug after all and so reject it in favour of those other legal highs, the ones which the government isn't also attempting to criminalise. There was yet another in the Equality Bill, with the public sector having a duty to narrow the gap between rich and poor. Will this be done by cutting the ridiculous salaries which some chief executives on councils and other managerial types take home and "redistributing" them to the lower paid in the public sector? I somehow doubt it.

We should perhaps be grateful for small mercies. While there is an umpteenth crime bill, making it even easier for the police to carry stop and searches, which is simply guaranteed to cut crime at a stroke and have no negative consequences whatsoever, there is no new immigration bill. Missing though was the health bill, which was odd enough to prompt Cameron to ask where it was, even while he was lambasting the government for being addicted to "more big government and spending" and also the housing bill, both of which would have been popular with core Labour supporters. Perhaps they're being saved for the manifesto, but it does show that for Cameron's claim that this was all about electioneering (politics, in a Queen's speech, as Martin Kettle notes, how horrible!) Labour still hasn't brought out the really big guns as yet.

It did however make you wonder what the point of the entire exercise was. How many of these bills will actually make it to the statute book is impossible to know. That there are only 33 legislative days in the Lords though between January and when an election is likely to be called suggests that it won't be many, if any. Everyone in essence was going through the motions, gearing up for the real fight, which is still some distance away. Perhaps the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh could have been given the day off and some random individuals pulled off the street, put in fancy dress and lead in to read the interminable goatskin vellum. It would have been a sight more authentic than Cameron and Brown pretending to talk to each other as they walked into the Lords.

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