The pared-down version of the State Opening of Parliament was a shame in a way. No-one loves the Guards bands, the Household Cavalry, Her Majesty in her magnificent state coach, more than me. We had to make do with a few people in funny uniforms, and a handful of members of the Lords and Commons.
Yet in a way the much-reduced pomp and circumstance may counter-intuitively actually reinforce the constitutional importance of the event. The ceremony of Prorogation marked the end of the first session of Parliament after the General Election, and this was the starting gun for the second. The Head of State comes to Parliament to let us know what Her Government will be doing in the year which lies ahead. She announces proposed legislation to members of both Houses, but financial matters only to we Commoners. (We don’t let their Lordships get anywhere near the dosh side of things.) The Gracious Speech, of course, is written not by her, but by civil servants (which the pedestrian language may hint at); and I always admire the way the Queen manages to read it out without even the slightest smirk at some of the announcements she has to make. We then take away the list of Bills, spend 5 days debating it and then vote on it next Tuesday. Our approval of the speech gives the Government the green light to bring forward the Bills, which after due process go back to HM for her final approval.
There is some very good stuff in this year’s speech. Some of it (Environment Bill, Police and Law and Order Bill) is carried over from the previous session. Much of it is new and welcome. We simply have to do something about these dreadful prosecutions of our soldiers who carried out their orders in Northern Ireland 50 years ago. I will be watching that very carefully. Some parts of the three animal welfare bills are to be applauded, although they will need careful scrutiny to avoid unintended consequences. After all we in the UK already have some of the highest animal welfare standards in the world.
I am instinctively unhappy, however, with two proposed bills. The Planning Bill risks taking the right to decide on development away from local people in favour of pre-set goals and targets. If not handled well, that not only has a negative effect on local democracy (Neighbourhood Planning, for example, becomes redundant); it also risks allowing large amounts of development across our green and pleasant England in a way which I for one wholly decry. So I will be seeking to scrutinise/amend the planning bill, as will a good bunch of my Conservative MP colleagues. That alone may make the Government have to think again on some of its elements.
I am also uneasy about compulsory ID cards for voting. I am not aware of much voter fraud; and it would have to be in very large numbers to influence the outcome of any particular election. The good old way that we have always done it seems to me to work very well. Everyone has a right to vote whether or not they happen to have some kind of ID with them at the time; and I would not want to lose that age-old right. This sounds a bit like an unworkable and bossy solution to a problem which does not in reality exist
So as always there will be elements of the 30 or so major Bills we are bringing in over this Session with which I will not agree. And the great strength of being a backbencher is that I can do so - and if necessary, vote against the Government on some of them, without let or hindrance. I have always prided myself on my independence of mind, and commitment to doing what is right for the people of North Wiltshire whether or not that happens to coincide what the Government may be planning. That mildly buccaneering freedom of thought and of action will - as ever - be my lodestar.