Outside the Palace of Westminster — the Houses of Parliament to you and me — the cops were tearing up the peace camp, the motley collection of protesters that began to gather before the election, and carried on through the five days or so when there was no government to speak of. In those weeks, the focus had been on democracy, the deficiencies thereof of the British system, and the need for reform.
In the week or so since it had become a medieval carnival, redolent of the old Mad May Days, when lords would serve peasants, and the village idiot would give the sermon. Not that it hasn’t been fun, with a couple of anarchist chancers crowning themselves king and queen and delivering cider-drenched edicts from makeshift thrones and all, but there was very little point.
In that respect of course, it was a perfect counterpart to what was going on inside with an ageing German woman reading words written for her by a sleek PR guy/Prime Minister, and his team of grinning minions. The Lords was a sea of ermine, with all the malarkey involving the Serjeant at Arms (Black Rod was off, doing a porno…actually he was ill), and Kenneth Clarke, the portly Chancellor, was in tights.
Yes it was Queen’s Speech day, a reminder of the archaic nature of British government, in which the whole parliament is, in the last analysis, an advisory body drafting proposed laws that a sovereign may want to enact.
The rapidity with which the process takes place at this stage in a European administration they’re still negotiating with whatever lunatic independent holds the balance of power is a testament to the role that instrumental efficiency has come to play in British governance.
Even five days of uncertainty was too much for the Brits, with the press, and not merely the rabid Murdoch attack-dogs, screaming for a signed, sealed government before the weekend was over. Now they’ve got it, and after a back-of-the-envelope deal done that afternoon, it was then expanded into a comprehensive programme.
The speech contained 23 major bills, which The Guardian has helpfully summarised here. A bunch of them were designed to address what David Cameron called the “appalling circumstances in which the previous government has left us” and included the creation of a separate budget audit office, taking some regulatory powers back to the Bank of England, part privatisation of the post-office and reversing Labour’s rise in employer contributions.
In social policy, they’ve paved the way to create more “academies” — state-run schools whose budget processes are independent of the local authority, a long-term “reinvention of the welfare system”, involving welfare-to-work provision, getting people off incapacity benefit lists, more autonomy for GP clinics in the health system, and the “public bodies reform bill”, the creation of the so-called ‘Big Society’.
The big one, of course, is the Freedom (Great Repeal) Bill, in which a whole series of Labour-authored attacks on civil liberties will be rolled up into one big bag and thrown in the sea. This includes throwing out Labour’s plan for ID cards, restricting the spread of CCTV cameras, rolling back the absurd databases governing working with children, and a fair bit more.
And though some of the true Tory dreck has already started to bubble to the surface — such as abolishing 10,000 planned new university places to the Freedom Bill — one can only say, thank God, thank God.
To be honest, in the last five years, as Labour has piled one repressive law upon another, replying to every concern about what was happening to a society which became so reliant on control and repression with a sneer that concerns about civil liberties were ‘middle class’, I had been very down about the prospect of roll-back.
It looked like a hiding to nothing. Who would let themselves be outflanked on the right, on law and order issues?
As it turned out, both the Conservatives and the Lib-Dems said enough was enough. The Lib-Dems had always done so, but until now, who gave a shit? The conservatives, I do think — possibly naively — were genuinely reacting to a process that had got wildly out of hand. Stuff like CCTVs remain popular across all social classes, and to come out against them is not necessarily a vote-winner, even in the Tory shires, where harrumphing about attacks on freedom simply means that you can’t beat your illegal Latvian house-cleaner.
But screw it. Labour wouldn’t do it, and the Con-Lib Dems did, and the repeals are a historical advance. The cuts to come may well remind us why we residually support Labour although it was Labour after all that proposed abolishing the lowest (10p) tax rate but that we have to make many of these cuts anyway.
And Labour still does not understand what it did by so assiduously making itself the party of Orwellian surveillance, and celebrating it as a positive good. Thus Peter Shoreham, a pro-Labour commentator on Newsnight, could think of nothing else to attack but the proposal to limit CCTV use “at the school I work at the parents really like CCTVs.”
Well maybe they do, but is that really the only way one can imagine to achieve a peaceful school? And if it is, isn’t the whole Labour project, of a society in which power money and state power are to some degree equalised across the population, isn’t that simply over?
Labour fell into the surveillance and database state by various means. In the final years of the Major government, Gordon Brown had come up with the slogan “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime,” as a way of getting round Labour’s image of woolly liberalism. It was also a genuine response to the fact that crime had risen relentlessly through the Thatcher-Major years.
But it was always intended as a stop-gap, while the creation of a new enterprise society made a society that was low crime, as are the European social democracies, because most people feel they have a reasonable stake, and a basic social recognition arising from citizenship.
That never happened. Instead, as Andrew Rawnsley has laid bare in The End of the Party, his chronicle of the last years of New Labour, Tony Blair became obsessed with foreign policy and remaking the world, and domestic policy was allowed to drift. As Blair became more desperate to foist a war on a people who didn’t want it, the attitude to those people became one of growing distrust of them.
Surveillance and control came to seem the natural relationship between a labour party and its people. As the people became yet more recalcitrant, the attitude hardened into one of barely concealed hatred — and the determination to impose databases etc through sheer bloody-mindedness.
Labour, of course, is now relaxing on the Opposition benches, confident that the Con Lib Dem alliance will quickly fall apart. There has been some grist for that mill already, with elements of the Tory right John Redwood, David Davis objecting to raises in the capital gains tax. This was a Lib-Dem demand to equalise tax rates, and was part of the Coalition deal.
But such friction can be misleading, since there is always a greater gap between backbenchers and ministry in UK governments. There was also a ham-fisted attempt by David Cameron to nobble the all-backbencher 1922 Committee.
But Labour may be in for a nasty surprise. What this government is shaping up as is one of moderate and steady cuts, coincident with a lot of interesting new social policies — many of them things that Labour had started to do in its first term but then lost interest in. Labour seems to hope that the sight of a bunch of smooth upper-class identical men in suits running the country will revive a sense of class war and anti-elitism.
Since the four contenders for the leadership (leaving aside the rule-proving exception of matronly buffoon Diane Abbott) are four men, two of them brothers, from a tight Labour caste that makes the Old Etonians look like the Petrograd Soviet in terms of openness, it’s just faintly possible the public might not see it that way.
A few more weeks like the last one, and that bedraggled rainbow coalition Labour was offered might start to look like a good idea.