“One nation”. It was this Disraelian motif that David Cameron resurrected for the first Conservative Queen’s Speech since 1996. “We should never have let that go,” he recently told one of his aides. After Labour’s brief (and failed) bid for ownership, the Prime Minister is using his honeymoon to reassert his “compassionate” credentials.
The speech contained some measures that centrists will applaud. Ministers will be required to report annually on job creation and apprenticeships (a welcome innovation from a party once intensely relaxed about unemployment). A bill will be introduced to ensure that no one working 30 hours a week on the minimum wage pays income tax. The NHS will receive the requested £8bn a year and health and social care will be integrated. Free childcare will be doubled from 15 hours a week to 30 (enabling further increases in female employment).
But too many bills will deepen the divisions that Cameron’s “one nation” pitch acknowledges. The two nation conservatism of the last parliament endures. Welfare will be cut by a further £12bn – a deed so grim that Conservative ministers dare not say where the axe will fall. With the state pension triple-locked and benefits for the elderly protected, only reductions in payments for children, the disabled, the working poor and housing will deliver the sums required. The promise to eliminate the deficit through spending cuts alone means some public services, most notably those delivered by local government, will simply cease to exit. The extension of “right to buy” to housing association tenants will only worsen the crisis as promised replacements again go unbuilt. Britain’s army of private renters, meanwhile, again receives no relief.
The bill that looms over all else, however, is that guaranteeing a referendum on EU membership by the end of 2017. Withdrawal would tip an already fragile economy into recession and make a mockery of the Conservatives’ stated ambition to “play a leading role in global affairs”. The great eurosceptic delusion is to believe that the UK would grow in influece outside of the EU. As the US and China privately and sometimes publicly warn, the reverse is true.
But the greatest danger is that the death of one union could lead to the death of another. Were Scotland to vote to remain in the EU and the rest of the UK to vote to leave, the SNP would cite this as grounds for another independence referendum. The state that it last year chose to remain a member of would have been fundamentally altered. But Cameron, who voted against an EU referendum in 2011, was forced into this pledge by Ukip and his recalcitrant backbenchers. By the end of the parliament, should the Union fracture into two nations, his promise of “one nation” could look like the bleakest of ironies.