The Blog

The Queen's Speech


The speech which the Queen makes at the opening of Parliament is always something of a mixture and that is never more so than immediately after a general election. The Queen doesn't write it herself, of course. Although she reads it out, it is written by the government as a statement of what they propose to do. Some of their proposals are new. Some are really rehashes of what they have promised in the past. Some are merely statements of political intention.

Because the speech is a statement of intent, it includes little detail. Bills containing the detailed proposals will be published in due course and it would be folly for the government to tie itself down on the detail before it has to. Still, if you look at yesterday's Queen's speech you will find one proposal which is intended to do exactly that - to limit the government's freedom of action in the future. That is the proposal to introduce a law guaranteeing that there will be no rises in income tax rates, VAT or national insurance before 2020.

That is odd when you think about it. After all, the government will be in charge for five years so it could simply state that it is not going to increase any of those taxes. Wouldn't that be wiser? It would also mean that if a sudden emergency arose so that tax rates did have to increase, the government would not have to start by repealing its own law. Why is Mr Cameron taking this odd course?

The key lies in the general election campaign. Political leaders of all persuasions believe that the electorate think them liars and Mr Cameron must have thought that the electorate would view a promise not to put up these rates with suspicion unless he promised to embed it in legislation. Actually he is probably wrong and it is doubtful whether anybody took more notice of the pledge not to increase rates because of the prospect of this superfluous new law. Still, that is why it is there and also why there will be a law to state that no one working thirty hours on the minimum wage should pay any income tax. In a sense these laws are a way of setting electoral promises in stone.

If you look at the speech as a whole and ask yourself which bits will be remembered in 100years time you will probably come up with the two big constitutional proposals. The first relates to Scotland, where the devolution promised in the Scottish referendum debate has to be enacted. In fact it is a little more complicated than that because, although the Smith Commission set out a blueprint for devolution, the Scottish National party are anxious to push it a little further. Also the issue overlaps with another pledge - that matters affecting only England and Wales should have to be approved by English and Welsh MPs. Put all this together and there is quite a constitutional debate to be had. In 100years time our great-grandchildren will look back to see how well the settlement reached actually lasted.

The second big constitutional issue is our relationship with the European Union. On the basis set out in the Queen's speech, the referendum must be held before the end of 2017. That means that before then Mr Cameron must have negotiated changes to EU rules which he can recommend to the British public. At the least these must allow benefits to be withheld until a claimant has lived for a certain period in the UK. A formal recognition that some states will never join the Euro will also be on his shopping list and he will be asking for this to be recognised in the workings of EU institutions. These negotiations have already started and it will be no surprise if Mr Cameron spends as much time in the capitals of Europe as he does back in London.

The fact that these two issues are pre-eminent does not take away from the importance of the others, some of which, like the way in which Mr Osborne seeks to reduce the deficit, are very important indeed. Still if you look back to 2010 when the Coalition replaced the Labour Government you will remember that then public concern was almost entirely about economics. The deficit is still a worry, as is the effect of austerity on the public, but in the long run this government will be judged by how it handles Scotland and the EU. Whether or not things are getting better, we have at least moved on.

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