There are few offices in the world that have quite so good a view as mine in the Department of Health. My windows look down straight over the Cenotaph and across Whitehall, with some beautiful London plane trees framing the view. It is such a good sight that I always work and conduct meetings with my back to the window, just to avoid what I know would be the temptation of distraction. I did stop work, however, last month in order to see the great procession taking Her Majesty the Queen to Parliament for the State Opening. It is a magnificent sight: Whitehall lined with sailors and soldiers; the whole great phalanx of the Sovereign’s Procession – more mounted horseguards, standard-bearers, footmen, in the midst of which is the state coach carrying the Duke of Edinburgh and the Queen.
Once in the House of Lords, the Queen reads a speech of a government with a direct mandate from the people, governing in her name but for your benefit. This ritual is telling us something important: through our history, sometimes bloody, the representatives of the people decide the fate of the nation but the guarantor of that settlement is the monarch.
What relevance does it have now? I was wondering this given the intensity of debate of the EU. Vote Leave argue that the only way that we can exercise sovereignty is if we are ‘free’ of the EU. Their logo says it all: ‘take back control’, it urges us. The implication is that this great democratic heritage that we have in this country – embodied in pomp every year in the State Opening but made real and vital in the elections to choose that parliament that she opens – is somehow made powerless by our membership of the EU. People say this to me on the street: “what’s the point of voting”, they say, “when our laws are made in Brussels”.
My answer is a simple one – what’s the point of me being an MP, then? Do people really believe that 650 of us fight to become your representatives, just to sit in a sham of a parliament whose powers have been devolved to the EU? Do people really believe that I do my job as a minister, just to look out of the window and not to get things done?
Of course not. The fact is that we all want to do this job precisely because it does give you the power to change people’s lives. If it were otherwise, we would all be flocking to work in Brussels, which is patently not the case. In fact, a relatively small proportion of laws are made in Brussels and they tend to be small technical legislation connected with making sure that the Single Market is free and fair – leaving us to legislate on hospitals, schools, foreign policy, defence and the other things that really affect people’s lives.
Bluntly, that power to legislate is magnified by being in the EU. It means that we can do more as politicians – like standing up to big companies or negotiating with foreign powers – than if we were to be on our own.
And if we ever wanted to leave? That ritual of power – the Queen opening your parliament – it is a ritual of power: of your power to elect your politicians, of our power to do things on your behalf, of a power that is made all the greater by our membership of the EU. If we left, we will be making your democratic mandate less powerful, which in turn would make that grand journey of the Queen more relic that a true ritual of power, because the parliament she was opening – your parliament – would have less power to change things on your behalf than if we had stayed in the EU. We would be left with a pretty ceremony but far less control. That is why, when all is said and done, we really are stronger in.