Forgettable King’s Speech Lacking In UK Domestic Policy – OpEd


By Andrew Hammond

King Charles this week gave the UK’s first King’s Speech in Parliament for more than seven decades. However, the address, which is traditionally written for the monarch by the government of the day, will not go down in the history books for its content.

The speech was long on words, with it possibly being the longest such address by a monarch since 2005. So, all the more shame that it was rather short on new ideas, especially for domestic policy, with the emphasis appearing to be more on a series of short-term measures designed to try to win headlines.

Even senior Conservatives criticized the lack of ambition. Former Cabinet minister Greg Clark, now the chair of the House of Commons Science Select Committee, condemned the “disappointing” failure to include an artificial intelligence bill that would help regulate the sector following last week’s big summit on the topic.

Moreover, ex-Prime Minister Theresa May warned 10 Downing Street’s current incumbent Rishi Sunak that “what we need to do now is press the accelerator on the transition to a green economy, not try to draw back. I fear that … the King’s Speech … is not sufficiently strong in ambition from the government to make sure that they are making that transition quickly enough to ensure that we reach net zero in 2050.”

The Conservative Party has now been in office for the best part of a decade and a half. Five prime ministers in and the party seems intellectually exhausted, with little that is genuinely novel announced on Tuesday.

There are now growing calls for the UK, which is nearly four years into a maximum five-year Parliament, to hold a general election. However, with the Conservatives trailing badly in the opinion polls, Sunak may well resist calling a ballot until at least the second half of 2024 to see if something turns up that might reverse his troubled political fortunes.

The King’s Speech signals not only the state opening of Parliament, but also a new UK lawmaking cycle, potentially the last full one for Sunak as PM. While Tuesday’s provisions were mainly domestically focused, some will have implications for key international audiences, cementing the details of prior government announcements — some dating back years.

One example is a new trade bill focused on the UK’s pending membership of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, a pact of 11 countries spanning Asia-Pacific and the Americas (Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam). The bill will ensure the UK can meet international commitments under the partnership when the nation formally accedes, probably next year.

This legislation is the latest move in the UK’s pivot toward the Asia-Pacific following Brexit. While, at present, the deal does not nearly get close to replacing the UK’s lost trade from the 27 EU states of recent years, given the existing economic patterns it does nonetheless deepen the country’s access to some of the world’s most dynamic economies. The group will account for the majority of worldwide growth between now and 2050 and will account for some 15 percent of global gross domestic product once the UK accedes.

With the COP28 climate summit in Dubai fast approaching, another bill with potentially key international consequences is the new Offshore Petroleum Licensing Bill. For about two decades, the UK has led the world on climate change issues, with a valuable bipartisan consensus around the energy transition and tackling global warming seeing the nation cut emissions further and faster than any other major economy. However, that precious political consensus — and the goal of achieving net-zero emissions by no later than 2050 — is threatened by Sunak’s proposed licensing of new oil and gas fields in the North Sea. The prime minister claims this will boost British energy security by reducing the country’s dependence on higher-emission imports from overseas, including Russia.

Laudable as this goal may be in the wake of the Ukraine war, critics such as the independent Committee on Climate Change assert that the global warming emergency means that the UK must go further to deliver net zero. This call is echoed by respected international bodies such as the International Energy Agency, which has called on as many advanced nations as possible, including the UK, to deliver on net zero five years earlier than planned, by 2045, thus providing developing countries with a bigger window to make their transition.

Meanwhile, in light of the current crisis in the Middle East, another bill of interest to international audiences is the legislation on the economic activities of public bodies overseas. This aims to stop British public bodies from imposing their own views on international relations by preventing boycott, divestment or sanctions campaigns against foreign countries.

The government is concerned that some bodies that use public funds, such as councils, universities and cultural institutions, are imposing their own politically motivated campaigns. This is especially in relation to Israel, on which the government perceives that such boycotts may legitimize antisemitism.

The proposed legislation will prevent public institutions from carrying out independent boycotts, divestments and sanctions relating to foreign countries or those linked to them, the sale of goods and services from foreign countries, and UK firms that trade with such countries, where such an approach is not in line with UK government sanctions. The measures will cover purchasing, procurement and investment decisions that undermine cohesion and integration.

Taken overall, Tuesday’s address has international implications, but it lacked the domestic ambition needed to navigate the UK on key issues like climate change. It is becoming ever clearer that a new government will be needed to deliver on that important, multigenerational project.

  • Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics.

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