I’ve been trying to work out why the Queen’s Speech detailing the Labour Party’s so-called programme for government up until the general election is so vacuous. Apart from the obvious things, that is: no mention of unemployment or immigration; no indication of precisely how the government – and which government – will fulfil its new statutory obligation to halve the UK’s fiscal deficit in four years at the same time as meet its pledges on public services; referring to all of the proposed bills as if they applied to the whole of the UK in a blanket fashion, whereas many of the key measures relate to England only; the complete lack of the word ‘England’ from the Queen’s speech, indeed, whereas Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland were promised increased devolution; the total absence of references to reforming parliamentary expenses, let alone the thoroughgoing political and constitutional reform that all the parties paid lip service to back in May and June of this year; and the reality that virtually none of the legislative programme will actually make it onto the statute books before the election, and that what does become law may well be reversed by an incoming Conservative administration. What a pointless exercise, which illustrates how irrelevant and remote from people’s lives Westminster has become.
And I suppose that, in essence, is why it is all so vacuous: a process of British governance merely going through the motions and becoming almost self-referential rather than engaging dynamically and honestly with the people on whose behalf the work of government is supposed to be carried out. British law rather than government of, for and by the people of England. I guess that’s why the government feels it needs to legislate – or at least put forward legislation – for its commitments on public services and fiscal policy rather than just make those commitments and engage in debate about them. It’s as if the reputation and legitimacy of Parliament and this government have fallen so low that it’s no longer enough simply to promise to do something: you have to make those promises binding in law. But legislating for something doesn’t make it legitimate. This is British-parliamentary law making instead of real government and leadership, which involves engaging with people’s real lives, concerns and needs. In this sense, the absence of any verbal reference to England is the symptom of an unwillingness and lack of competency – in both meanings of the term – to be a government for England, even though that is what the British government is supposed to be in so many areas.
Look at the actual commitments the government is making to England (without saying so) in the form of statutory obligations that mostly won’t become statute anyway, and so aren’t worth the parliamentary Order Book paper they’re written on: binding commitments for suspected cancer sufferers to see a specialist within two weeks of a referral, and that no one should have to wait more than 18 weeks between a GP referral and a hospital appointment for other conditions; a commitment to provide one-to-one tuition to schoolchildren who need extra help; free personal care at home for the 280,000 most needy individuals plus other measures to help those already receiving free care or for those entering care homes. All very worthy commitments in themselves, but they come across as rather random. Why the priority on cancer referrals, as cancer is already comparatively well funded, rather than other aspects of health care that urgently need attention, such as strokes, the standard of personal care health professionals are able to provide patients in hospital, hospital hygiene, mental health, etc. etc.)? And what is the vision for the school system and for education as a whole in England, and, in particular, how is the government going to address the problem of failing schools, let alone that of failing pupils? The truth of the matter is the government doesn’t have a vision for English schools, in part because it can’t even acknowledge the name of the country for whose education system it is responsible. No vision of England means no vision for England’s NHS or health-care system.
And don’t even get me on to the subject of personal care, where the government still isn’t doing anything like what the Scottish government has been doing for years thanks to its generous funding via the Barnett Formula: free personal care at home for all who need it, irrespective of their financial means. Now, I’m not saying that we could afford such a level of provision in England, especially in these straitened financial times; but then, can we afford it in Scotland, either? How about drawing up a ‘Fairness In Government Bill’ specifying the minimum and maximum levels of public-service provision across the whole of the UK that are appropriate to different degrees of fiscal deficit – free personal care needing to be capped at a certain level, for all UK citizens, once the national debt reaches a specified amount? Oh, but I forgot: despite giving the impression that it could do something like that, the government can’t because of devolution. Well then, better still, give us an English Parliament, and then the fairly elected representatives of England could decide the level of taxation, borrowing and social-care provision that England can afford for its own people.
Because that’s what’s lacking in all of this: any kind of attempt to formulate policy for England that reflects English people’s priorities and preferences. Do we actually want the government’s nebulous ‘National Care System’, affiliated to the NHS, to be the centrally managed channel for government funding for and provision of social care? Wouldn’t we in England rather have a system that was managed and funded closer to the people it was aiming to help: through local authorities, communities, private providers, voluntary organisations, and direct financial and practical support to individual carers, rather than through some Whitehall-managed bureaucratic machine? But we’re not having this discussion because the government has given up, or perhaps has never wanted to be, this sort of genuine government for England.
But the Labour Party does have a vision for Britain. Except it’s a Britain of the past, not the Britain of the present, or a Britain and England of the future. On the same day as this most inconsequential of Queen’s Speeches, the Labour Party aired an extraordinary party-political broadcast:
In this embarrassing act of self-praise, the Labour Party identifies with Britain itself and with every major progressive movement of the 20th century, of which Britain is portrayed as having been in the vanguard. Well, perhaps not every movement: I’m sure there’s a brief flash of a CND march accompanying the commentary on the anti-apartheid movement – an intentional subliminal reference, perhaps, to give heart to socialist idealists that the Labour Party still represents them; but better not refer to this explicitly. And, needless to say, there is absolutely no reference to England even in the bits of the broadcast that refer to the England-only policies: the commitments about NHS treatment times; “free personal care for those who need it” (what, all of them?); the creation of a National Care Service (for ‘Britain’? no, it’s England only). Oh, of course, and no reference to the ‘achievement’ of devolution or to any of the actual policies the Labour government has carried out in England only: NHS prescription charges, parking fees, and life-prolonging drugs withheld, where these either do not apply or are provided respectively elsewhere in the UK (healthcare apartheid, in short); a target- and performance-driven education system that still has not demonstrably improved standards or focused on the needs of the economically and educationally disadvantaged – compared with a radical reform of the educational philosophy and system in Wales; free personal care in Scotland only.
Instead, Labour’s vision is a misty-eyed view of a past in which people did genuinely believe that Labour could deliver real change, and greater social equality and opportunity, for everyone across Britain; and in which it possessed the tools to deliver much of that agenda when it was in government. But Labour has in reality given away and abandoned that holistic vision of a united ‘British nation’, of social solidarity across the whole of the UK, and of concern for the needs of working people and those who cannot work, for one reason or another. And it’s also given away the levers of government to realise that vision. And so it retreats into a sterile sham of UK-wide law making underpinned by a dreamy re-writing of British history that places it at the centre of all meaningful social reform over the last 100 years: as much as to say that if it is elected into government again, it will continue the fight for progress in Britain.
But what will it actually do for England? And is it even bothered to ask the people of England what they want? Until it does, all its British law making and myth making will just be so many hollow words and fantasies.