Trains and chains and Victorian values in a modern setting

Brown now has two years in which he should forget about polls and the press and lay some foundations

One event on a busy 6 November best captured the contradictions, but also the potential, of a Gordon Brown premiership: the unveiling by the Queen of the new St Pancras station and Britain’s first high-speed rail link. The entertainment was traditional (Timothy West and Katherine Jenkins) with a hint of modernism (Lemar). The architecture and engineering reflect Victorian glories but also look to the future. The destination – continental Europe – was mentioned in passing and, while the tracks through Kent are welcome, they come more than a decade after the French performed a similar feat, and they do not appear to presage any other rail grands projets in the near future.

This infrastructure project, more than any speech by Her Maj to parliament, also shows the merits of planning and patience in politics. The greatest successes of government are rarely those that can be trumpeted or demonstrated within a short span. Brown’s most important achievement as chancellor was sound economic management. Perhaps Tony Blair will be remembered most fondly as the premier who brought in civil partnerships – a symbol of a more tolerant and open society (in some areas).

For this reason, there is much to praise in the manner in which Brown presented his first legislative programme. It is good that there were few surprises. Blair was adept at wheezes and media flourishes, but they were ultimately his undoing. Brown has rarely been confident in this area, so is wise to steer clear. As for David Cameron, he is now displaying an enviable mastery of the Commons, but so did William Hague during his brief tenure as Tory leader, and where did that get him? The British public is less gullible about presentation than had once been assumed. It seems that voters wish to judge politicians by the delivery of their promises and by sound administration, and it is here that Brown has a considerable opportunity.

The fiasco around the election-that-wasn’t did the PM and his team considerable short-term damage, but they should have emerged from it more quickly than they did. It was, after all, one of those ructions that matter only to the political classes. Brown now has two years or more during which he should forget about opinion polls and a fickle media, and lay some foundations for a fairer and more progressive society.

The signals sent in the Queen’s Speech are mixed. On the credit side, the proposals to extend to 18 full-time education for all are an important step towards tackling social immobility that has taken hold in Britain. The one genuine surprise in the programme is the extension of flexible working rights for parents of children above the age of six. Even if the increase is limited to cover only primary school age, rather than secondary, that would be a welcome step forward.

Some proposals are worthy but should go further. Into this category fall the plans for constitutional reform and the climate-change reduction targets. As for the aim of increasing the supply of affordable homes over the next decade, the principle is certainly ambitious. It will need skilful implementation both to deliver on the promise while addressing public concerns about the destruction of the green belt. Yet it is hard to disagree with the public’s increasing suspicion of the state when one looks into, for example, the Planning Reform Bill, which is little more than a charter for the state and corporations to ride roughshod over local concerns.

As our political editor points out (page ten), new Labour’s record on civil liberties is lamentable. The latest anti-terrorism bill may include some changes that are technically necessary (such as post-charge questioning, where carefully applied), but in the extension of pre-charge custody and the introduction of identity cards, Brown would preside over two of the most fundamental erosions to our liberty in our times. A more courageous political course, from a man whose recent speech on the issue contained many laudable thoughts, would be to stand back and ask whether an authoritarian Britain can ever win the battle of ideas. When Brown talks of vision, there is none greater than liberty.

Don't phone a friend

Acurious coincidence involving a game show we associate with Chris Tarrant led to an article making the "most popular" list on the NS's website last week. "The case of Khrushchev's shoe" is certainly a piece worthy of note, written by the late Soviet leader's granddaughter, no less. What was strange about its sudden popularity, however, was the date of its original publication: 2 October 2000.

How had this article from seven years ago attracted so much attention? Had a vast lecture hall been addressed on the hitherto underexplored area of footwear and its role in the downfall of public figures, starting with Khrushchev and ending with Mrs Conrad Black, by way of Imelda Marcos?

Had a Jimmy Choo or a Manolo Blahnik confessed their admiration for Russian craftsmanship, pointing out that our article describes the admirable durability displayed by Khrushchev's shoe while being banged on the UN desk?

The truth was more prosaic but equally unlikely. A contestant on the US edition of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? faced the million-dollar question: which country had provoked the communist premier's undiplomatic response? The audience at home (we think) swiftly looked him up on Wikipedia; and not finding the answer apparent, turned to the NS article, which Wikipedia features under "external links".

Rather than phoning a friend, perhaps future contestants should consult the NS. We will always be glad to help.

This article first appeared in the 12 November 2007 issue of the New Statesman, 3 easy steps to save the planet