The State Opening of Parliament: history, tradition and what to expect

21 Jun 2017
The Queen's Speech opening the 2015 parliamentary session

The State Opening of Parliament is one of the most anticipated events of the parliamentary year. Beamed to television and radio networks around the world, it has become a symbol of the UK's democratic heritage. What is the history behind some of the peculiar practices and procedures that surround State Opening?

Aileen Walker, Associate, Global Partners Governance
Associate, Global Partners Governance

Aileen Walker

Aileen Walker
Associate, Global Partners Governance

Aileen is an Associate of Global Partners Governance, working on public engagement and parliamentary strengthening projects overseas. She worked at the House of Commons for over 30 years, latterly as Director of Public Engagement, where she was responsible for the significant increase in Parliament’s public engagement activity, including Parliament’s Education Service, Information Office, Outreach Service, and Visitor Services.

Aileen was on the Hansard Society’s Advisory Council, and has been a school governor for many years. She received an OBE in the New Year 2017 Honours List for services to improving public engagement with Parliament and voluntary service to the community in London.

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Richard Crossman famously described the State Opening of Parliament as being:

"… like the Prisoner of Zenda but not nearly as smart or well done as it would be at Hollywood."

(The Diaries of a Cabinet Minister, Vol 2, 1976, entry for 31 October 1967)

The State Opening of Parliament is the main ceremonial event of the parliamentary year and has symbolic significance, as it is the only regular occasion when the three constituent parts of Parliament – the House of Commons, the House of Lords and the Sovereign – meet together.

Emma Crewe, who has studied both the House of Lords and the House of Commons from the inside (Lords of Parliament, Manchester University Press, 2005; The House of Commons, Bloomsbury Academic, 2015), recently described to me "the genius of State Opening" being that it conveys different meanings to different people – MPs, peers, republicans, monarchists, historians, commentators, and the general public(s). It serves as a useful symbol for all viewpoints. Emma finds this hardly surprising:

"… as it has to pull off the conjuring trick of demonstrating the majesty of the Monarch, the historical importance of peers, and the political clout of MPs all in the same ceremony.The mighty procession from Buckingham Palace to Westminster, with its small show of military power, convey to all that the Monarchy is at the top of the status pyramid. The procession through Royal Gallery, and the Queen placing herself in the Lords Chamber surrounded by peers in their ermine robes, emphasises that peers are socially only just beneath the Monarch. It makes sense for the remaining peers who revere the historical, to take seriously the symbols that are paraded and give the impression for a few hours of an unchanging moral universe. […] The visible presence of history is seen as powerful in itself: to possess things from the past is to master time, and this mastery is a form of social power. We have forgotten that State Opening was scarcely an event during much of the nineteenth century."

(Commons and Lords: An Anthropology of Parliament, Haus Curiosities, 2015, p.55)

On the other hand, the role of the Commons in the tableau is set up to challenge that power: the slamming of the door in Black Rod's face; the customary quip from republican Dennis Skinner MP (among my favourites – "I bet he drinks Carling Black Label" in 1991, and "New Labour, new Black Rod" in 1996); and the fact that when MPs do accede to the Queen's command to attend her immediately in the House of Peers, there is no formal, dignified procession - more of a casual saunter, chattering and joking. Emma sums up:

"The whole event is, in the eyes of most modernising MPs (and a few peers), faintly ridiculous but at least emphasises their independence and political superiority." (p.56)

Some parts of the media like to have it both ways (or, as Boris Johnson recently said, "Cake–wise: I am pro-having it, and pro-eating it"). Why not criticise the ludicrous extravagance of Lords and Ladies in ermine, and then lap up the pomp and circumstance on the only day a year when they actually wear robes, ignoring the work of the Lords the rest of the year round?

Thanks to television, people the world over are now familiar with the sequence of events and the various traditional elements of State Opening.

Everyone is aware of the door of the House of Commons Chamber being slammed in the face of Black Rod. It is generally understood that this practice dates back to the English Civil War, symbolising the Commons' independence from the monarchy. Interestingly, however, this passage in Erskine May, the bible of parliamentary procedure, was recently pointed out to me:

"When Black Rod attends the Commons, on this or another occasion, it is customary that the door is shut in his face, and he is admitted only after he has knocked three times. Successive Speakers have ruled that this custom is to allow the Commons to establish Black Rod's identity rather than being, as is often supposed, a direct assertion of that House's right to deny Black Rod's entry."

(Erskine May, 24th edition, 2011, p.149)

So is this another enduring myth, like the red lines in the Commons Chamber being two swords' lengths apart?

The reading of the Queen's Speech, which is, of course, written for her by the Government, is normally received in respectful silence. A rare exception to this in 1998 was recorded by Emma Crewe in her chapter on the reform of the membership of the House of Lords:

"Assembled peers and bishops, enrobed and seated, and MPs standing squashed together at the bar of the House, listened with customary respect, until she announced the hereditary peers' eviction. Labour MPs murmured 'Hear, hear'. The Queen appeared shocked; interruption was unprecedented. Peers growled 'Shame, shame' in response. It was a jolt for many of the hereditaries."

(Lords of Parliament, 2005, p.49)

I always enjoyed the late Simon Hoggart's parliamentary sketches, and offer here his take on the Queen's Speech of 1999 (he is generally complaining about the invasion of New Labour jargon, infecting even the language of the Speech):

"What is the point of having all these ushers and courtiers and heralds in Parliament, including Fitzalan Pursuivant Extraordinary, Maltravers Herald Extraordinary, Clarenceaux [sic] King of Arms, the Cap of Maintenance (does Queen Beatrix have a Dutch Cap of Maintenance?) and Gold Stick in Waiting, which sounds like a breath freshener you keep for emergencies, but which turns out to be Princess Anne, all of whom seem to have been saved from the tumbrils which carted all but ninety-two hereditary peers off to the guillotine last week – if not one of them can say to the Queen, 'Don't read out this stuff, Your Majesty, it's complete and utter garbage'?"

(The Hands of History, 2007, entry for 18.11.99)

Please tell me that all these offices actually exist! They do.

In addition to setting out the Government's legislative programme, the Queen's Speech also traditionally announces forthcoming state visits and other planned visits from foreign heads of state. So, will a planned visit from the US Head of State appear in this year's Queen's Speech, or not?

There are also some well-known traditions that take place away from the public eye. One is the ceremonial search of the cellars by the Yeomen of the Guard (the Royal bodyguards) the night before State Opening, which dates from the Gunpowder Plot. Another is the taking hostage in Buckingham Palace of a Member of Parliament, who is released when the Queen returns safely.

This has its origins in the tumultuous relationship between King Charles I and his Parliament. The hostage is normally a junior whip – the Vice-Chamberlain of the Household, who is ex officio a member of the Royal Household. Jim Fitzpatrick MP was one such hostage, and tells about his experience in 2014 in a BBC video. Chris Mullin MP also alluded to this tradition in his diary entry on the day of the State Opening on 6 December 2000, as he watched the Queen's carriage make its way back to Buckingham Palace:

"And in the final carriage, the unmistakable figure of Tommy McAvoy in top hat and tails, beaming from ear to ear. Apparently, one of the whips (Graham Allen) is left at the Palace as a hostage against HM's safe return and Tommy has to go and collect him. If Tommy were the hostage, there would be more than a few votes for leaving him in the royal dungeons."

(A View From the Foothills, 2009)

In the thirty years I worked at Parliament, I had the pleasure of witnessing different parts of the proceedings: from the pavement, from Bellamy's Cafeteria window, in Central Lobby, and in the public gallery of the House of Lords. However, the intriguing description I heard from one of Parliament's Visitor Services Managers of another generally unseen event – the Royal carriage rehearsal which takes place down an empty Whitehall in the atmospheric quiet before dawn, during the week before State Opening – suggests that this might be the best spectacle of all.

The opening of the first session of a new Parliament is different from that of other sessions: prior to the State Opening, the Houses will already have met – for the Commons to (re)elect the Speaker (with the Father of the House in the Chair), and for Members of both Houses to take the oath.

Following the Queen's Speech, both Houses then debate the Speech for several days, with slightly different conventions in the House of Commons and the House of Lords.

In the Commons, the task of proposing and seconding the motion on the Loyal Address is regarded as an honour and is given to two favoured government backbenchers. Traditionally these speeches are humorous, and relate to Members' own experiences, and the hopes of their respective constituencies, with suitable reference to anything in the speech that will be particularly welcomed there. A list of proposers and seconders since 1900 appears on Parliament's website.

According to the Parliamentary Archives, traditions surrounding the State Opening and delivery of a speech by the monarch can be traced back at least to the 16th century, while the modern ceremony dates from the opening of the new Palace of Westminster in 1852. Nevertheless, and contrary to popular myth, Parliament is adept at adapting to circumstances, eventualities, and events. Here are a few interesting points about the 2017 State Opening and some minor changes we might expect:

  • Given the snap general election and the lack of time between Trooping the Colour on 17 June and State Opening, the Queen will perform a "dressed down" State Opening. She will not travel to the Palace of Westminster in a carriage, and she will not wear robes and the Imperial State Crown (although the Crown will be brought to the Palace separately). This is only the second time the Queen will have been involved in a scaled-back ceremony, the previous occasion having been in March 1974 following another snap election. The House of Lords Library has produced a briefing on this - State Openings of Parliament: Reduced Ceremonial - and there is a handy video introduction to this year's ceremony from Black Rod himself.

  • Before the General Election took place, the State Opening date was originally set for 19 June (which was the first possible date after polling day), but that had to be pushed back given the hung parliament result and the need for subsequent discussion between the Conservative Party and the DUP. It seems that the Queen is still expected to attend Ascot.

  • After a general election, Parliament formally meets on a certain date (Tuesday 13 June, this year) but other than electing the Speaker and swearing in Members, no other parliamentary business can take place until after State Opening (for the reason that Parliament cannot proceed to public business until the monarch has said why it has been summoned). Following the fire at Grenfell Tower, Members wanted to meet to discuss the situation. While not a formal parliamentary debate, a well-publicised informal meeting of MPs did take place in Westminster Hall to question Ministers about the disaster.

  • Before beginning the debate on the Queen's Speech, in the Commons the first reading of the Outlawries Bill takes place. This is purely a formal procedural device by which the Commons demonstrates its right to initiate its own business. Most normal items of business (e.g. oral questions, petitions, urgent questions) cannot take place on the first day of debate on the Queen's Speech, and Erskine May says there is "no precedent for statements being made on [the first] day, since they can be made in debate on the Queen's speech"(p.160). Given the fire at Grenfell Tower and the recent terrorist attacks in London, there may be an expectation from the House and the public for a ministerial statement. Might that precedent be broken on 21 June 2017?

  • And finally, the Leader of the House, Andrea Leadsom, said on BBC Sunday Politics on 18 June that there will be no 2018 State Opening, to allow for a two-year parliament to enable the Government to get the work of leaving the EU done. But has the Government taken account of the risk that if the Lords maintain opposition to the Great Repeal Bill or perhaps other Brexit legislation, it will not be possible to use the Parliament Acts to override that opposition until the next parliamentary Session, almost certain to be after the expiry of the two year period allowed for under Article 50?

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