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It is an absolute pleasure, as always, to follow Huw Irranca-Davies, and to follow my hon. Friend Penny Mordaunt, who spoke yesterday in proposing the Loyal Address. She gave a glittering speech on the Navy, on Portsmouth, and on the role of women in Parliament and in the armed forces. It was touching, witty and profound. It was a speech that my great aunt, the first British Conservative woman in Parliament, would have been very proud to hear. It was a speech that should make us all redouble our work to smash the glass ceiling that still holds back so many women and girls in this country and around the world.
In the week of the D-day commemorations, I want to join my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition, who rightly paid tribute to the D-day generation who gave their tomorrows for our today and our democratic freedoms. It is a salutary reminder, at a time when public disillusionment with politics is so high, making it fashionable for people such as Russell Brand and others to attack and dismiss mainstream politics, of the great privilege and prize of democratic politics: free and fair elections that those in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Zimbabwe and other places in the world have fought and died for.
As the Leader of the Opposition said in the thoughtful first few minutes of his speech yesterday, highlighting the growing public disillusionment with narrow, shrill, unduly dogmatic and self-interested politics before disappointingly reverting to type and failing his own high test, recent elections have shown us the strong public groundswell of anger at a politics and a model of big government people increasingly feel is not working for them. The Queen’s Speech is about specific Bills, but it is also a moment to reflect on the causes and implications of that. With the Scottish and the EU referendums looming, there is a real risk of disillusionment fuelling support for secessionist, pessimistic, backward-looking politics and leading potentially to the break-up of this great United Kingdom and the loss of the irreplaceable richness and strength in the union of our historic nations, so brilliantly described recently by Simon Schama, to be replaced by a smaller, shriller, narrower politics of self-interest within the disempowering bureaucracy of a centralising European Union. That is why I welcome the Prime Minister’s strong support for the United Kingdom and his insistence on governing for the nation not in narrow party interest but from the progressive centre, ambitious for a globally competitive and influential Britain. But to do that we need to understand—indeed harness—the causes of the disillusionment that we are seeing.
I do not claim any special insight on this, but it is a subject that has long been of interest to me. In 2003 I founded an independent movement called Mind the Gap! to look at the causes of disillusionment and, in 2005, a campaign called Positive Politics. I have written and spoken on it widely elsewhere. I want to make three quick observations.
The first is that this problem has been incubating for a long time, over the last 20 years. The inconvenient truth that we need to face is that it has done so under both main parties; from some of the sleaze in the early ’90s, through the spin of new Labour and the culture of anything-goes irresponsibility. That was enhanced by the former Labour Business Secretary, who said that he was profoundly relaxed about people getting filthy rich. He should not have been; he should have been profoundly exercised in building a culture of enterprise, philanthropy and respect for wealth creation. There was also the abuse of the democratic process in connection with the Iraq decision, some of the scandalous excesses of the expenses scandal and the public disillusionment with the way in which the bank bail-out was conducted and the way in which bank bonuses continue to be paid without so much as any criminal sanction. In America, people would be behind bars. That has fuelled the sense among the public of “one rule for us and another for them.”
My second observation is that this is not apathy; the people of Britain are not uninterested in their politics. It is anger, fuelled by an increasingly depressed and devastating combination of powerlessness and a sense of an unaccountable governing class, particularly in Europe but also in London. There is a sense that the citizens of this country are less and less able to take power and influence over their own lives at a time when, in their domestic lives as consumers, technology is empowering them evermore.
The third observation is that the United Kingdom Independence party, while successfully riding this wave of anger, has no answers or solutions, no serious policy programme and is in fact a toxic and divisive influence in British politics. The British people are not lurching to the right. They do not necessarily want to leave the EU today and they certainly are not racist and xenophobic. But they do yearn for a politics and a Parliament in which those in positions of power and responsibility take and exercise their responsibilities for those who are without them. We must set the highest standards of conduct not just in public office but in senior positions across our society: football, the media and in business. We must always work in the interests of the people whose
Parliament this is, who pay our bills and whose ancestors gave their lives 70 years ago to secure the freedoms we cherish.
It is in that context that I welcome the important steps taken in this Parliament to begin to put this country back on its feet: restoring the public finances; tackling the deficit; rewarding work and responsibility; our reforms to welfare, to pensions and to tax breaks for the lowest paid; empowering citizens; our long-term economic plan for a resilient economy; the localist reforms to give power back to communities; the reforms in the Home Office, in defence, health and education; our historic commitment to begin to tackle the problem of public disillusionment with the EU with the Prime Minister’s pledge to reform and to give the British people a referendum on the EU.
In the Queen’s Speech, I welcome in particular the measures on the economy, society and politics; the recall Bill, the slavery Bill, the social action responsibility Bill and the small business and pensions Bills. The truth is that the extent of the economic, social and political hollowing-out that we inherited will take more than four or five years to fix. It will require a better politics, economy and society, which has at its heart, as this Queen’s Speech does, an insistence on the notion of the reciprocal responsibilities that bind us. It requires a culture of political discourse that values what the decent majority of British people do—a culture of fairness and decency with universal values and standards that apply equally to all citizens. I believe that this Parliament and this Government have started to put this country back on its feet through key reforms to promote work and responsibility, citizen empowerment, more responsive public services and a sustainable model of growth and public finance.
I welcome this Queen’s Speech as a first step on a long hard road. The Leader of the Opposition began yesterday to point the way down that road, but I do not believe that the public think he has a serious programme of reform to deliver what we need. I believe that the people of Newark today, and the country next spring, will reward the only party that does.