To some extent, and in glorious ways, all Queen’s Speeches are peculiar. Her Majesty appears in front of Parliament, in the finest of her finery, and proceeds to read a summary, prepared by Number 10, of the Government’s legislative programme for the forthcoming year. It is a strange collision of pomp and politics.
But this week’s Queen’s Speech was even more peculiar than usual. The reason was its timing. In about a month from now, our country will vote on whether it wants to leave or remain within the European Union. Not only is this vote occupying most of the Government’s attention at the moment, not only is it pitting Conservative against Conservative, but it could also derail any legislative programme. Who knows what our politics will look like in several weeks’ time?
Hence why David Cameron didn’t construct a particularly strident Queen’s Speech. He can ill afford another battle with his backbenchers, nor can he make grand promises when the future is so uncertain. He has to err on the side of uncontroversial.
Happily, this meant some pretty good things for those people – like us on this blog – who care about the future of transportation. One of the most prominent items within the Queen’s Speech was the Modern Transport Bill. This will, apparently, encourage investment in new technologies such as driverless and electric vehicles. It will also seek to work out some of the questions about driverless cars and insurance. These are policies that even the most disgruntled Tory backbenchers can get behind.
We don’t know much more about the Bill for the time being. That is the nature of Queen’s Speeches – they are more an outline than a proper blueprint. But what this does confirm is the Government’s commitment to driverless cars. Most of George Osborne’s recent Budgets have provided for them in one way or another, including an announcement in the most recent that trials will be conducted on British motorways from next year. These vehicles are, almost from nowhere, becoming one of the leitmotifs of this Parliament.
It also suggests that the Government is thinking properly about what driverless motoring might mean. The promise about insurance might seem a trivial part of this Bill, but it is actually one of the most crucial and difficult problems around this new technology. Who will be blamed in the case of a crash? The owner of the vehicle? The makers of the vehicle itself? Or human error on the part of people in traditional cars?
One could be cynical, and point out that Britain’s shoddy road network needs a lot of improvement in the here and now, before we start rushing ahead to a driverless future. Similarly, it might have been better if some of the other provisions in the Queen’s Speech – such as the extension of broadband to rural areas – had been introduced earlier. Besides, will these things actually get done?
But we’re not feeling cynical on this blog today. The truth is, it’s better that these things are begun than not begun at all. Hopefully, not even the fallout from the EU Referendum will stall their progress.