Angela Smith speech to House of Lords, 14th October 2019
My Lords, this is my third Queen’s Speech debate as Leader of the Opposition, though it’s been a while since the last one. Three Queen’s Speeches, three debates – and three different Prime Ministers. And the dire state of national governance means I can’t rule out taking part in a fourth, or even fifth, debate in the coming months. It could be a bit like the proverbial number 9 bus – you wait for ages and then three come along at once. And on recent form who knows how many Prime Ministers we could see in that time. So, it’s surprising that the first Bill of this session isn’t the Fixed Term Parliaments Act (Repeal) Bill.
As always, our proceedings started this afternoon with two memorable speeches.
The NL Anelay has always enjoyed the respect of YLH both as fearsome Chief Whip and softer, highly regarded Foreign Office Minister. That softer side was evident in a friendship she established at the Foreign Office with Palmerston, otherwise known on Twitter as @Diplomog – the Foreign Office cat. Such was the affection between them that on the day the NL left the Government from DExEU, Palmerston left the comfort of the Foreign Office and unexpectedly walked purposely across Whitehall, just to bid farewell.
On her introduction into YLH in 1996 she went through the same process as us all in choosing her title, but hers turned out to be slightly more expensive. After being told she couldn’t have ‘Woking’, she selected Baroness Anelay of ‘St John’s’ after the village (with an apostrophe). Garter, King at Arms informed her that was ok, but on checking through historic and ancient documents regarding the village, he declared it had no apostrophe. So, all the road signs had to be changed.
Few could match the NL Dobbs theatrical style and the flourish of his speech. I hope in future to see him in cameo roles when his books are filmed. He could be the Colin Dexter or Alfred Hitchcock of YLH.
The NL has an enviable reputation as both a writer and politician having worked at the highest levels of the Conservative administration for many years – leading one newspaper to describe him as “Westminster’s Baby-Faced Hit Man”.
A few years ago, the NL told me, as we toured the bowels of the building, that he was writing a new book based, once again on the political machinations of Westminster. So, you will understand my nervousness that he promised, or perhaps threatened, that I would be a character in such a future book. Ever since then I’ve always treated him with the utmost respect and have laughed at all of his jokes. I hope he saw sufficient amusement from me today. The book hasn’t appeared yet, but he’s probably hampered as no fiction could be as bizarre as the reality. He could respond “you may think that but I couldn’t possibly comment”.
This is an unusual Queen’s Speech. We were expecting great things given that Prime Minister Johnson tried, and failed, to have an unprecedented five weeks preparation time – rather than the usual five days. Normally, it comes after an election and is an opportunity for a Prime Minister to put their mark on the forthcoming programme of Government for at least the next year. But with Mr Johnson clearly desperate for another election, this Queen’s Speech can be little more than the market testing of his Manifesto for the next election rather than a serious programme for the next session.
In taking the programme at face value we welcome legislation aimed at tackling domestic abuse, improving mental health, protecting children and young people from online harm, and dealing with the poor management of private pension schemes. Some of these important issues were already being considered by the previous Prime Minister, and indeed in previous Queen’s Speeches. And others have been championed for some time by colleagues from across this House, including many from these benches. But there are a number of key issues missing – where is the promised Veterans Bill. There is nothing on housing. And there is more about being seen to be tough on crime than genuinely tackling the causes. We also have Brexit-related Bills on agriculture, fisheries, immigration and trade – all of which began their legislative process but were subsequently abandoned.
The government is promising legislation to Implement new building safety standards. One of the casualties of cuts to local government funding has been the enforcement of building regulations – designed to ensure high standards, including on safety and the environment. Yet, with fewer inspectors on the ground, and Government changes in planning laws, it is easier now for the unscrupulous or the ignorant to flout the law. While we welcome improving and monitoring standards the Government has to understand that it has already hollowed out the current system. In addressing this will want to ensure that any new regime is necessary, has real teeth and is not just warm words and another layer of bureaucracy.
We have serious concerns about the proposed Electoral Integrity Bill. Clearly, we should do what’s necessary to stamp out any abuse of the system. But we must take care that the scale of changes is proportionate to the problem and do not have unintended consequences. I’m not convinced that introducing photo ID meets that test, so we need to scrutinise the detail. One of our priorities for election integrity would be to ensure that 16- and 17-year olds could also have the right vote.
And yet again we have a commitment to Outer Space. A ruse perhaps for the Prime Minister to make another hackneyed joke about putting opposition MPs into orbit. But it does sound a bit pie in the sky given the government has delayed HS2, failed to make a decision on airport capacity and can’t get its act together on lorry parks in Kent. My Lords – it sometime feels like the Government is living in a parallel universe.
I suppose we shouldn’t have been surprised that Mr Johnson chose not to repeat David Cameron’s commitment, emphasised in the 2016 Queen’s Speech, confirming the sovereignty of Parliament and the Primacy of the House of Commons. At the time we felt it was an unnecessary reminder aimed at YLH. But as the Brexit crisis has unfolded it is the current Prime Minister who has been forced to recognise the sovereignty of Parliament and Commons primacy.
In the last session, YLH dealt with around four dozen bills and over two thousand SIs’. Many amendments and changes were put forward – with a fair number accepted by the Government or, if voted on and sent to the Commons, agreed in full or in part. And where the Commons disagreed with our amendments, we respected its primacy. Recognising our constitutional role, particularly in such challenging political times, we rightly also considered and passed two hugely significant Bills agreed by MPs without Government support. In our Parliamentary democracy it would have been completely wrong for this House to have rejected legislation that commanded the support of MPs, because the Government didn’t like it. The Government was also right not to, as some urged, use this House to try to wreck that legislation.
We will continue to undertake our responsibilities and obligations regarding legislation with due diligence. It is therefore extraordinary that a Member of the current Cabinet, having previously praised us for our maturity, wisdom, learnedness and experience has now called for the abolition of YLH. Indeed, he is on record praising the ‘great benefit’ that comes with our ‘independence’. But, it has to be said that was before we disagreed with Mr Jacob Rees Mogg. And, that probably explains his change of opinion more than the discovery of an important point of constitutional principle.
There can be doubt that we are living through extraordinary times. None of us can predict the future. At the moment we can’t even predict what’s going to happen over the next week, with an emergency and exceptional sitting of Parliament on Saturday. And it’s not just because of the Brexit negotiations, as unpredictable as they are, but even more seriously it is a consequence of being at a pivotal and troubling point in our nation’s history.
Few that took part in the 2016 referendum, in good faith, could have imagined we’d be in such an uncertain position today – 1207 days later. The 2017 Queen’s Speech talked about providing certainty and making a success of Brexit – it was apparently a ‘priority’ to build a more united country, yet we are more divided and uncertain than ever before. Having been told so often that Brexit would be easy, that freed from the so-called ‘shackles’ of the EU we would emerge phoenix like, stronger and better than ever, many dared to believe those promises. It’s clear now that those promises were based on little more than a wing and prayer.
The rhetoric, the false promises, hopes and statements, that accompanied the campaign and the years since – ministerial and otherwise - have debased our democracy and our values. As competing pressures inevitably meant that a Brexit deal was tougher to nail down, the blame game began – with parliamentarians, lawyers and others labelled ‘traitors’, and even ‘enemies of the people’ for daring to fulfil their constitutional role. And the added potency of terms such as ‘dying in a ditch’ and ‘Surrender Bill’ appear to be part of a clear, sabre-rattling attempt to create hostility and conflict between the electorate and MPs. In recent weeks, we have seen that rhetoric reach new levels of toxicity and an increasingly desperate attempt to lay responsibility at the door of others. Each time the negotiations get difficult, there’s a blame game to point the finger at anyone but the Prime Minister.
But at what cost?
Whatever the outcome of the Brexit debacle what comes next will seal the future and the values of our country for at least a generation. So where do we go from here?
Reflecting on the debate since 2016, it feels as if the values that have underpinned British governments since 1945 – including Conservative-led ones – have been jettisoned. That’s not about specific policies, but the conventional wisdom that it was the duty and responsibility of Government to seek to unite, rather than divide and to act for the whole nation rather than any party or narrow interest. And whilst the upping of that, at times dangerous, rhetoric is designed to win votes, the public is more dispirited and with a greater sense of disappointment, disengagement and disillusionment about Parliament and politics than ever before. They see the escalating rows over Brexit, with no unifying conclusion, ensuring that other concerns and issues that affect their everyday lives have fallen by the wayside.
The current tone of public discourse and debate means too many of our citizens, young and old, have so little confidence and optimism, that they either lose hope or would rather be cold and wet protesting outside, than ever think they could be in here making the decisions to bring about the change they seek.
I believe, I think we all do, in the power of Government for good. In its power to effect change; and its duty to provide hope and optimism for the future. The bungling of Brexit has sapped the energy, the ambition, the intellect, the creativity and the finances of our country. The brightest and the best could have been directed towards the greatest challenges of the generation. Instead, they’ve been pulled one way, then another, in trying to cope with Brexit. Where is that strategic vision and collective national ambition?
Today for all the new technology that wallpapers our everyday lives, it can feel at times like we are in an era of ‘make do and mend’. Any government with a sense of a purpose would at least try to define – with honesty – a route to some sunny upland or other. But Mr Johnson’s regime is sadly lacking.
It’s little wonder that today we see so little of that hope and optimism that has to be the backbone of any modern state. Our young people have to believe there is a future with personal, professional and selfless opportunity. To be able to work, to own or rent a secure and affordable home. To be able to trust in a health and care system for them and their families. And to be able to believe that the environment will be cleaner and better for their children – and that they will be safe and secure. These are modest desires that a good government – a good state – should enable. If not trying to create a utopian view of the Good Society, then at least aspiring to a better one.
Given that this Queen’s Speech is a pitch to the electorate, can it deliver that optimism to bring about a better future? Robert Kennedy was inspirational when (quoting George Bernard Shaw) he said: “some see things as they are and ask why. I dream of things that never were and ask why not”. Those words are so apt. This can’t just be about government – we need to encourage others to share that dream and ask ‘Why not?’
It might sound whimsical but that’s what successful governments have done when making the case for office, rather than base arguments about the left and right of politics. They’ve been able to engage others to share an optimistic vision, and to have the confidence that Government will enable the delivery of it.
It’s hard to define what generates public optimism. But there are pivotal points in our recent history:
- A war weary public, whilst grateful to and admiring of Winston Churchill, was enthused by the hope of a new Britain under Clement Attlee;
- the white heat of technology promised by Harold Wilson engaged those seeking a more forward-looking, socially liberal society;
- Margaret Thatcher gauged the temperature of Britain during the industrial strife of the 1970s, and despite my strong disagreement with so much of her programme, she initially had a vision and successfully convinced many to share it;
- And Tony Blair’s ‘Britain deserves better’ resonated with young and old alike. Things indeed, got better.
There is no quick way of turning this dire state of affairs around. But it is incumbent on all of us to try and find a way forward. It’s not enough to have a Manifesto, or a Queen’s Speech, of promises. It has to be about genuinely making a difference, on the issues that matter to our citizens, not about issues that matter to Westminster. The relationship between the public and the institutions of state and politics has been strained to the limit. And attempts to win votes by stretching it just a little further are doomed to a failure greater than losing elections. So that’s the big responsibility for Government today.
And who knows, in seeking to rebuilding that trust, we may not only help heal divisions but, in time, bring about a new optimism followed by the renewed commitment in our politics to deliver the legislation and honour its promise.
Baroness Angela Smith of Basildon is Shadow Leader of the House of Lords. She tweets @LadyBasildon