An alternative Queen's speech

A progressive agenda for the coalition.

On a couple of occasions when I worked at 10 Downing Street, I had the pleasure of drafting a paragraph or two for inclusion in the Queen’s Speech. If I could draft all of Her Majesty’s speech this year, it would read something like this:

“My Lords and Members of the House of Commons, my government’s overriding priority is to ensure sustained economic growth and increased job creation. Measures will be brought forward to boost demand in the economy, increase investment in British businesses, tackle long-term unemployment and help raise family living standards. Consistent with these measures to boost growth and employment, my government will remain committed to eradicating the structural deficit in the public finances in the first half of the next Parliament.

My government will legislate to purchase all remaining shares in the Royal Bank of Scotland and to allow it substantially to increase its lending to UK companies, particularly small and medium-sized enterprises. A Bill will be introduced to establish a National Investment Bank with a remit of lending for infrastructure projects. My government will temporarily cut National Insurance contributions in order to boost household incomes, paid for by the introduction of a Mansion Tax on properties valued at over £2 million.

A Bill to end long term unemployment will be introduced to guarantee work to any person who does not find employment during their time on the Work Programme. These will be newly created jobs, of at least six months in duration and paid the National Minimum Wage. The long-term unemployed will be under a duty to take up this employment or face withdrawal of their benefits. A Bill will be brought forward to create a new National Salary Insurance programme to improve income protection for working people who lose their jobs, providing anyone who had made sufficient contributions with access to up to £200 a week for up to six months while they look for a new job, repaid via an income-contingent loan, with a zero real rate of interest.

My government will legislate to devolve funding and responsibility for transport, skills and economic development to groups of local authorities or Metropolitan-area Mayors, depending on local preferences. My government will bring forward measures to increase substantially the supply of affordable housing. New Affordable Housing Grants, combining Housing Benefit and capital investment funds, will be devolved to local authorities, who will be under an obligation to ensure that more affordable homes to buy or rent are built in each area.

My government believes that improving services for the care of children and the elderly are vital to strengthening our society, increasing social mobility and sustaining full employment. A Bill will be brought forward to establish the legal framework for universal pre-school childcare, with a substantial amount free and a cap on the remaining costs for parents. As a first step, 15 hours of free childcare will be provided for all two year olds.  Draft legislation will be laid before you to focus child poverty targets on the under-fives in this Parliament and the next, and to establish greater flexibility in parental leave entitlements, reserving at least a month’s leave for fathers.

An Intergenerational Fairness Bill will restrict Winter Fuel Allowance, free TV licences and free bus passes to older people in receipt of Pension Credit, and abolish higher rate tax relief on pension contributions, to release resources to extend childcare for families with young children. Legislation will be brought forward to implement the recommendations of the Dilnot Commission on Social Care.

My government will further ease the pressure on family living standards by legislating to reform the energy market, with measures to end anti-competitive practices and protect vulnerable consumers, and to require greater transparency on the part of energy suppliers in accounting for retail and wholesale costs.

My government will continue to reform and strengthen public services. A Bill will be brought forward to establish school commissioners in England's 12 largest cities, with responsibility for raising school standards, using the school improvement powers which currently rest with the Secretary of State for Education.  A Personal Budgets Bill will be introduced to give all NHS patients with long term conditions entitlements to a personal health budget so that they have greater personal choice and control over their care. 

My government will act to strengthen democracy, regulate access to political power and ensure greater political equality. A Bill will be brought forward to introduce compulsory electoral registration so that all citizens come within the franchise, place a duty to vote on all first time voters, place caps on political donations and state funding for political parties, and enact a statutory register of interests for lobbyists. My government will proceed with plans to reform the House of Lords.

After receiving the final report of the Leveson inquiry, my government will bring forward legislation to enact its recommendations and ensure a diverse, responsible and free press.

My government remains committed to the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union and will work with its partners to help overcome the current economic problems in the Eurozone. Proposals for reforming the European Union and strengthening its democratic legitimacy will be laid before you for debate. My government will maintain its commitment to securing global agreement to tackle climate change and mitigate its effects on the world’s poorest people. My government will enshrine in law its commitment to meet the United Nations target of 0.7 per cent ODA/GNI spend by 2013.

My government will continue to work closely with the devolved administrations in the interests of all the people of the United Kingdom.

Other measures will be laid before you.

My Lords and Members of the House of Commons, I pray that the blessing of Almighty God may rest upon your counsels.”

Nick Pearce is the director of IPPR

Queen Elizabeth II prepares to deliver her speech in the House of Lords during the State Opening of Parliament. Photograph: Getty Images.

Nick Pearce is Professor of Public Policy & Director of the Institute for Policy Research, University of Bath.

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In defence of orientalism, the case against Twenty20, and why Ken should watch Son of Saul

My week, from Age Concern to anti-semitism.

Returning late from a party I never much wanted to go to, I leap up and down in the middle of the Harrow Road in the hope of flagging down a taxi, but the drivers don’t notice me. Either they’re haring down the fast lane or they’re too preoccupied cursing Uber to one another on their mobile phones. My father drove a black cab, so I have a deep loyalty to them. But there’s nothing like being left stranded in NW10 in the dead of night to make one reconsider one’s options. I just wish Uber wasn’t called Uber.

Just not cricket

Tired and irritable, I spend the next day watching sport on television – snooker, darts, cricket, anything I can find. But I won’t be following the Indian Premier League’s Twenty20 cricket again. It’s greedy, cynical, over-sponsored and naff. Whenever somebody hits a boundary, cheerleaders in cast-off gym kit previously worn by fourth-form Roedean girls wave tinsel mops.

Matches go to the final over where they’re decided in a thrashathon of sixes hit by mercenaries wielding bats as wide as shovels. Why, in that case, don’t both teams just play a final over each and dispense with the previous 19? I can’t wait for the elegant ennui of a five-day Test match.

Stop! Culture police!

I go to the Delacroix exhibition at the National Gallery to shake off the sensation of all-consuming kitsch. Immediately I realise I have always confused Delacroix with someone else but I can’t decide who. Maybe Jacques-Louis David. The show convincingly argues that Delacroix influenced every artist who came after him except Jeff Koons, who in that case must have been influenced by David. It’s turbulent, moody work, some of the best of it, again to my surprise, being religious painting with the religion taken out. Christ’s followers lamenting his death don’t appear to be expecting miracles. This is a man they loved, cruelly executed. The colours are the colours of insupportable grief.

I love the show but wish the curators hadn’t felt they must apologise for Delacroix finding the North Africans he painted “exotic”. Cultural studies jargon screams from the wall. You can hear the lecturer inveighing against the “appropriating colonial gaze” – John Berger and Edward Said taking all the fun out of marvelling at what’s foreign and desirable. I find myself wondering where they’d stand on the Roedean cheer-leaders of Mumbai.

Taking leave of the senses

My wife drags me to a play at Age Concern’s headquarters in Bloomsbury. When I see where she’s taking me I wonder if she plans to leave me there. The play is called Don’t Leave Me Now and is written by Brian Daniels. It is, to keep it simple, about the effects of dementia on the families and lovers of sufferers. I am not, in all honesty, expecting a good time. It is a reading only, the actors sitting in a long line like a board of examiners, and the audience hunched forward in the attitude of the professionally caring.  My wife is a therapist so this is her world.

Here, unlike in my study, an educated empathy prevails and no one is furious. I fear that art is going to get lost in good intention. But the play turns out to be subtly powerful, sympathetic and sharp, sad and funny; and hearing it read engages me as seeing it performed might not have done. Spared the spectacle of actors throwing their bodies around and singing about their dreams against a backdrop painted by a lesser, Les Mis version of Delacroix, you can concentrate on the words. And where dementia is the villain, words are priceless.

Mixing with the proles

In Bloomsbury again the next day for a bank holiday design and craft fair at Mary Ward House. I have a soft spot for craft fairs, having helped run a craft shop once, and I feel a kinship with the designers sitting bored behind their stalls, answering inane questions about kilns and receiving empty compliments. But it’s the venue that steals the show, a lovely Arts and Crafts house, founded in the 1890s by the novelist Mary Ward with the intention of enabling the wealthy and educated to live among the poor and introduce them to the consolations of beauty and knowledge. We’d call that patronising. We’re wrong. It’s a high ideal, to ease the burden of poverty and ignorance and, in Ward’s words, save us from “the darker, coarser temptations of our human road”.

An Oscar-winning argument for Zionism

Speaking of which, I am unable to empty my mind of Ken Livingstone and his apologists as I sit in the cinema and watch the just-released Academy Award-winning Son of Saul, a devastating film about one prisoner’s attempt to hold on to a vestige of humanity in a Nazi death camp. If you think you know of hell from Dante or Michelangelo, think again. The inferno bodied forth in Son of Saul is no theological apportioning of justice or deserts. It is the evisceration of meaning, the negation of every grand illusion about itself mankind has ever harboured. There has been a fashion, lately, to invoke Gaza as proof that the Holocaust is a lesson that Jews failed to learn – as though one cruelty drives out another, as though suffering is forfeit, and as though we, the observers, must choose between horrors.

I defy even Livingstone to watch this film, in which the Jews, once gassed, become “pieces” – Stücke – and not grasp the overwhelming case for a Jewish place of refuge. Zionism pre-dated the camps, and its fulfilment, if we can call it that, came too late for those millions reduced to the grey powder mountains the Sonderkommandos were tasked with sweeping away. It diminishes one’s sympathy for the Palestinian cause not a jot to recognise the arguments, in a world of dehumanising hate, for Zionism. Indeed, not to recognise those arguments is to embrace the moral insentience whose murderous consequence Son of Saul confronts with numbed horror. 

This article first appeared in the 05 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The longest hatred