Pomp and circumstance: The politics behind the new Government's legislative programme

This year's Queen's Speech laying out the legislative agenda for the next parliamentary term provides an almost perfect analogy for modern Britain and the challenges that the new Government will face.

Cameron is a true conservative, argues Stephen Day
Cameron is a true conservative, argues Stephen Day
One the one hand, the splendour and ceremony of the state opening of Parliament, with the monarch conveyed to Parliament in the state coach escorted by the Household Cavalry to participate in rituals steeped in meaning and symbolism relating to the evolution of our democracy; and on the other, a legislative programme light on actual bills, but heavily focused on matters of constitutionalism, the future of our own Union, our relationship with the European Union, and measures to tackle welfarism, immigration and legal highs tagged on to the end.

It is clear that the Prime Minister recognises that rather like Stanley Baldwin before him, having fixed the economy from a recession, it now falls to him to create a nation at ease with itself and indeed with its neighbours.

The legislative agenda therefore seeks to address the issues that were most to the fore in the election campaign, and according to the polls, the minds of the British people: Europe, the NHS, immigration and the future of Scotland are front and centre; as are moves to encourage work over welfare and indolence. Controversial proposals on a British Bill of Rights have been rapidly shelved at the first whiff of backbench dissent.

The programme has already been criticised for not being as ambitious, radical or far-reaching as other second-term governments – for example, those of Margaret Thatcher or Tony Blair.  

This is to misunderstand both David Cameron and the situation. This is not a second-term Government; it is, in effect, a first-term Conservative Government. 

And Cameron, unlike Thatcher and Blair, is no radical; he is a moderate man for moderate times. Similarly to Baldwin, he sees his task as a healer and a consolidator of the status quo, not an effecter of change.  

Cameron is largely devoid of ideology or dogma and is, in the true sense of the word, a conservative.  

In Cameron’s view the country should be governed well but quietly: shouty politics is out and should be left to Nigel Farage and Alex Salmond, its biggest current proponents.

The hand that he has been dealt since becoming Prime Minister means that he has resorted to means that are extra-ordinary, and not usually deployed by Conservatives; referenda on Scotland and now Europe are not of his design, but are seen as necessary device to preserve the existing order and quell nationalism in both Scotland and England (as embodied by UKIP). 

It remains to be seen whether both or either will succeed in their long-term aim.

Similarly, in Cameron’s first term, the plebiscite on AV and the coalition with the Liberal Democrats were radical at face value, but were in fact measures designed to stymie change, provide stability and quietly secure governance at a time of national emergency.

This Queen’s Speech is, then, a product of both a continuation of what might be termed Cameronism, and a recognition that the constitutional melees that lie ahead on Europe and in Scotland require a clearing of the decks in Parliament, overriding the desire to legislate on a wider Tory agenda.

Stephen Day is practice chair and managing director, public affairs at Burson-Marsteller

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