Page last updated at 09:18 GMT, Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Major and Callaghan's Queen's Speech lessons for Brown

By Brian Wheeler
Political reporter, BBC News

Gordon Brown has been accused of wasting everyone's time with Wednesday's Queen's Speech.

John Major
John Major had one law he needed to get through at all costs

The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats say few of the proposed new laws it contains will make it on to the statute books before Parliament has to be dissolved for a general election, which must happen by June at the latest.

Labour insists it has time to get "most" of its legislation through - and that the Queen's Speech will not be just a glorified general election manifesto.

But does history bear this claim out?

We delved into the archives to find out how two former prime ministers - John Major in 1991 and James Callaghan in 1978 - handled their final Queen's Speech before an election.

Like Gordon Brown, both men were about six months away from the likely polling day and facing opposition claims their party had run out ideas, as well as growing demands for an immediate election.

Conservative Prime Minister John Major opted for a relatively thin programme in November 1991 - just 12 bills, only half a dozen of which had any real substance. All of them, with one very important exception, were flexible enough to be dropped at a moment's notice.

"It is a programme designed to exorcise past demons and to provide a glimpse of a brighter Conservative future," wrote Philip Stephens in the Financial Times, before adding that it was the economy and Europe that would set the tone for the coming Parliamentary session.

Notable casualties

The centrepiece of the speech was a bill to replace the widely-hated Community Charge, or poll tax, with the council tax. Mr Major could scarcely have faced the electorate without it - and it was pushed through by March 1992.

Written by the government and delivered by the reigning monarch, it sets out the legislative agenda for the year ahead and is the centrepiece of the state opening of Parliament
The Queen normally attends in person at the state opening of Parliament and delivers the speech from the grand throne in the House of Lords
Doesn't include everything- the Budget and pre-Budget report are also increasingly used to set out strategy and announce new measures

An education bill, making schools publish academic league tables for the first time, also made it into law before Mr Major called an election, which was held in April 1992. A short bill creating a new offence of prison mutiny in England and Wales was also passed, among several minor pieces of legislation.

But much else in the 1991 Queen's Speech had to be abandoned.

Notable casualties included an Asylum Bill, aimed at speeding up the asylum process and cracking down on bogus applicants, and a bill to give consumers of privatised utilities more rights through the Citizen's Charter.

Many of these measures resurfaced in Mr Major's general election manifesto - particularly those connected with the Citizen's Charter, which held out the prospect of better state services driven by the demands of consumers - and would go on to form the centrepiece of Mr Major's 1992-1997 term in office.

The Queen's Speech Labour Prime Minister James Callaghan came up with in November 1978 was, on the face of it, a more substantial programme, even if much of it was designed to hold together the shaky coalition with minor parties which was allowing him to cling to power.

'No resigning matters'

Tellingly, it included more cash for Scottish and Welsh development agencies, grants for bilingual education in Wales and moves to give more parliamentary seats to Northern Ireland.

There was also a bill to pay those on short-time working 75% of their normal wage for each day lost - in a pre-election bid to reduce the number of redundancies.

James Callaghan
James Callaghan was trying to retain his grip on power

"A full session's work - but nothing risky," was The Economist's verdict.

"There is nothing in the speech which the government would be likely to regard as a resigning matter," the magazine said, before concluding: "If the programme is successfully carried into law it can hardly fail to enhance the government's reputation as a force for moderation - and hence improve its electoral appeal."

Given the turmoil surrounding the dying days of the Callaghan government it is surprising how some relatively mundane measures made it on to the statute books, such as a Public Lending Rights Bill, which gave authors an income from public library borrowing for the first time.

But a no-confidence vote in March, amid crippling strikes dubbed the "winter of discontent" and Scottish nationalist anger over devolution, ensured Mr Callaghan was unable to complete the Parliamentary session, which had been due to run to October.

He was forced to call an election and ditch much of his programme.

A banking bill to set up a deposit protection fund and a licensing system to protect savers against another secondary banking crisis, of the kind that had led to a property crash in 1974/5, just made it into law before Parliament was dissolved.

Other last minute laws included a marine safety bill and a bill giving compensation to Welsh quarrymen, rushed through to gain the support of the three Welsh nationalists in the no-confidence vote.

Compulsory seat belts

But much major legislation failed to get through in time, including Shirley Williams' education bill, which would have extended parental choice, made school governors more representative and introduce maintenance grants for 16-to-18 year-olds.

Peter Shore's housing bill, to improve the statutory rights of council tenants, including security of tenure and the right to take lodgers, also bit the dust.

And transport Secretary Bill Rodgers, who would later form the breakaway SDP with Mrs Williams and others, was also disappointed not to get laws making the wearing of seatbelts compulsory on to the statute book.

Many of the ideas in the 1978 Queen's Speech would ride again in Labour's 1979 manifesto.

A few, such as compulsory seat belts and the creation of a fourth television channel, were eventually taken up by a Conservative government.

But the vast majority, such as Shore's housing blueprint - rejected by the Tories in favour of council house sales - would never be heard of again.

One measure promised in the 1978 Queen's Speech that we would not be hearing the last of was freedom of information.

But unfortunately for Labour, they would have to wait another 21 years - 18 of them in the opposition benches - before they could make it law.

Gordon Brown will be fervently hoping the list of bills announced by the Queen on Wednesday does not meet a similar fate.

Print Sponsor

What is the Queen's Speech?
03 Dec 08 |  UK Politics
Cancel Queen's Speech, says Clegg
16 Nov 09 |  UK Politics

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Sign in

BBC navigation

Copyright © 2019 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.

Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific