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Sugar Tax, Spaceports Meet Pageantry in UK Queen's Speech

  • Associated Press

Britain's Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, sit in the House of Lords ahead of the Queen's Speech at the State Opening of Parliament in London, May 18, 2016.

Britain's Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, sit in the House of Lords ahead of the Queen's Speech at the State Opening of Parliament in London, May 18, 2016.

Queen Elizabeth II donned an ermine-trimmed robe and diamond-studded crown Wednesday to announce government promises to put Britain at the cutting edge of technology and social progress in the 21st century.

Plans for prison reform, a sugar tax and commercial spaceports were among 21 bills announced in the Queen's Speech, an annual tradition that mixes lavish pomp and modern politics.

Prime Minister David Cameron called it a “progressive, one-nation'' program, but some measures are sure to meet resistance - and next month's referendum on European Union membership is casting a shadow over the government's plans.

Pomp and parliament

The annual State Opening of Parliament is steeped in centuries-old symbolism of the power struggle between Parliament and the British monarchy. In a display of regal wealth and finery, the queen traveled from Buckingham Palace in the horse-drawn Diamond Jubilee State Coach, and delivered the speech - written for her by the government - wearing the Imperial State Crown, studded with 3,000 diamonds.

Lawmakers were summoned to listen to the queen by a security official named Black Rod - but only complied after slamming the door of the House of Commons in his face to symbolize their independence.

Since King Charles I tried to arrest members of the House of Commons in 1642 - and ended up deposed, tried and beheaded - the monarch has been barred from entering the chamber, so the speech is delivered in Parliament's upper chamber, the House of Lords.

The monarch has addressed the opening of Parliament more than 60 times since she took the throne in 1952. For the first time this year the queen, who turned 90 last month, used an elevator rather than a staircase to enter Parliament. Buckingham Palace said the “modest adjustment'' had been made for “the queen's comfort.''

Out-of-this world ideas

Amid bread-and-butter bills on town planning, bus services and pensions, the speech offered glimpses of a future of driverless cars, commercial space travel and deliveries by drone.

The Modern Transport Bill promised to put Britain “at the forefront of safe technology'' in the drone sector, seek investment in “autonomous vehicles, spaceplane operations and spaceports'' and introduce insurance for driverless cars, which are currently being tested in several British cities.

The government aims to open a spaceport by 2018 that could be used for commercial satellite launches and tourist space flights.

Security and extremism

The speech said Britain would continue to meet the NATO target of spending 2 percent of national income on defense.

A bill to “tackle extremism in all its forms'' includes a proposal to silence extremist speakers with civil orders and to scrutinize “unregulated education settings.'' Details of the measures will be closely watched by free-speech groups.

Another contentious measure, to introduce a British bill of rights separate from the European Convention on Human Rights, was limited to a promise of “proposals'' rather than legislation. The exact same promise was made last year.

Doing what's good for you

The speech promised to “increase life chances for the most disadvantaged,'' and included plans to make adoption easier, improve schools and establish new universities.

The government said it would replace crumbling Victorian prisons with modern facilities and give inmates more opportunities to work and learn, “to give individuals a second chance.''

To fight childhood obesity, a tax on sugary sodas will come into effect in 2018. The levy has been opposed by the soft-drink industry, but the government says it will raise millions that can be spent on school sports and breakfast clubs.

The EU elephant in the room

The battle raging over Britain's membership in the European Union received only a glancing mention in the nine-minute speech. “My government will hold a referendum on membership of the European Union,'' the queen said, referring to the vote scheduled for June 23.

There was no mention of a Sovereignty Bill, which some Conservatives have sought in order to assert the primacy of British legislation over the European Court of Justice.

Senior “leave'' campaigner Iain Duncan Smith accused the government of “jettisoning or watering down key elements of their legislative program'' to avoid contentious issues before the referendum.