In a blend of ancient ritual and new ideas, incoming Prime Minister Tony Blair on Wednesday launched Britain on a reformers’ course toward social change and radical constitutional overhaul.
Queen Elizabeth II embodied ceremony and substance on a crystal spring morning, riding in her carriage to the Palace of Westminster with an escort of 234 red-coated and plumed cavalrymen. On her throne, wearing the bejeweled monarch’s crown, she read the traditional Queen’s Speech, opening Parliament and unveiling 26 key Labor government legislative initiatives.
The 12-minute inaugural address was the first prepared by the Labor Party since 1974, and Blair’s message was unmistakable in tenor and content: From gun control to a ban on tobacco advertising to human rights and government decentralization, he wants quick, wide-ranging changes - in the context of a free-market economy and controlled government spending.
Key issues to be addressed over the next 18 months include education and health care reforms, proposals to increase employment and reduce crime and the introduction of Britain’s first minimum wage.
Labor also will propose referendums on creating a parliament in Scotland with taxing authority, as well as an elected assembly in Wales, and will offer Londoners the chance to elect a decision-maker mayor and council for the first time in a decade in the nation’s capital and largest metropolitan region.
“We speak as the one-nation party in British politics today. We speak for the whole nation, and we will serve for the whole nation,” Blair told the House of Commons after the queen and her court had returned to Buckingham Palace.
Like Blair’s call for expanded freedom of information and cleaner, more transparent government, his proposals had been part of Labor’s platform for the May 1 election that brought Blair to power. Now, his unassailable 179-seat majority in the 659-seat House that began a five-year term Wednesday means passage is virtually assured.
That is precisely what the opposition finds worrying, former Conservative Prime Minister John Major told the House, cautioning the new government against arrogance in its zeal to sponsor change.
Major will remain the Conservative leader until the election of a successor in coming weeks. Powerfully scoring Blair’s early actions, Major attacked Labor decisions to act without consulting Parliament in giving the Bank of England last week the right to establish interest rates, and in arbitrarily changing the format of the prime minister’s weekly appearances in the House to answer questions.
In his campaign for office, Blair, 44, was careful not to make sweeping promises. Yet the strength and scope of his victory was such that winners’ expectations have quickly exceeded Labor’s commitments.
Thus, although the Queen’s Speech was notable for the number and variety of its proposals, what was not there also attracted comment. Analysts quickly noted that there was no mention of election reform promised by Labor, in conjunction with the third-party Liberal Democrats, to introduce proportional representation.
The government’s projects will be submitted sequentially, but foremost among them will be two bills restructuring education - Labor’s first priority in its campaign. “Hopefully it will be the first pieces of legislation on the statute books,” said Education Secretary David Blunkett.
One bill would end subsidies paid under the Conservatives to around 40,000 children of poor families to attend private schools where educational standards are higher than in their neighborhoods. The savings will be used to help guarantee classes of 30 or less for children aged five to seven.