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State Opening is the ceremony that takes place to formally mark the start of a new Session of Parliament. It is a historic ceremony rich in constitutional symbolism. Most importantly, it is the only regular occasion on which all three of Parliament's constituent elements – the Sovereign, the House of Lords, and the House of Commons – normally meet together.
This guide is part of the collection: The King’s Speech and State Opening of Parliament: A procedural and constitutional guide
If State Opening takes place at the beginning of a new Parliament, after a General Election, it takes place a few days after the first day of the new Session (that is, a few days after the new Parliament first meets). This is because, in a new Parliament, time is needed before State Opening for the House of Commons to elect its Speaker (which must take place before the Queen's Speech), and for the swearing-in of Members of both Houses. MPs and Peers can still swear-in after the Queen's Speech if necessary, but the vast majority do so before it.
If State Opening takes place during a Parliament, after a Prorogation, it takes place on the first day of the new Session. Neither House can conduct any normal parliamentary business in the Session before the King's Speech has been delivered.
The date of State Opening is determined by the Government. A parliamentary Session usually lasts for around a year, but it has no minimum or maximum length, and State Opening may therefore take place at any time. For much of the post-1945 period until passage of the Fixed Terms Parliaments Act 2011 (FTPA), the State Opening at the start of a Parliament typically took place in the late Spring/early Summer and the State Openings of later Sessions typically in the Autumn (with the first Session of a Parliament extended, and the last Session truncated, to accommodate this pattern). Following passage of the FTPA, all State Openings were shifted to the Spring/early Summer; but the new pattern was disrupted in 2019 by the Brexit process, and, following the repeal of the FTPA (by the Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Act 2022, a new pattern of Sessions has not yet become established.
The main practical constraints affecting the date are the King’s availability, and the time needed to prepare and put in place all the ceremonial, logistical and security arrangements necessary for the occasion. A lack of time, owing to an unexpected State Opening after an early General Election, is one of the circumstances that can lead to a 'dressed-down' State Opening.
On the appointed day, the Monarch arrives at Sovereign’s Entrance, at the House of Lords end of the Palace of Westminster, under Victoria Tower accompanied by other members of the Royal Family.
The King first goes to the Robing Room to put on the Robe of State. He then takes up his position as the central figure in the Royal Procession. It moves through the Royal Gallery into the Chamber of the House of Lords, where the King takes up his place on the Throne in front of the assembled Members of the Upper House.
As well as Members of the House of Lords, judges are invited to attend, and some diplomats and spouses of Members may also be present. Such figures and other guests also normally fill the Royal Gallery on either side to watch the Royal Procession.
State Opening is the only regular occasion on which Peers wear their red-and-ermine robes.
The House of Lords Mace is normally present in the Chamber as the symbol of the Monarch’s authority. As the Monarch is there in person, the Mace is not required and is absent during these proceedings.
Once the King has taken his place on the Throne in the Lords Chamber, a sign is given to Black Rod that she should summon the House of Commons to come to the House of Lords to attend His Majesty.
When Black Rod arrives at the House of Commons Chamber, the door is shut in front of her, obliging her to strike it three times with her staff to gain entry. By tradition, this is a reminder of the Commons’ independence from the Crown. It is commonly said to date back to the mid-seventeenth century when King Charles I, accompanied by soldiers, entered the Commons Chamber to arrest five MPs he accused of treason. However, there are examples prior to 1642 of MPs taking exception to Black Rod entering the House of Commons without permission.
Once admitted to the Commons Chamber, Black Rod passes on the King’s request that the Commons attend him in the House of Lords. MPs – led by the Speaker and then the Prime Minister – proceed to walk from the House of Commons across Central Lobby and into the House of Lords. The Clerk of the House of Commons accompanies them.
When MPs have arrived in the House of Lords Chamber (where they stand at the Bar of the House), the Lord Chancellor presents the King with the text of the Speech. When the King has finished giving the Speech he withdraws from the Lords Chamber, MPs return to the House of Commons, and both Houses can get down to the first real business of the new parliamentary Session.
Normally, State Opening is one of the grandest and most colourful ceremonies in the national calendar, with the Monarch wearing the Robe of State and arriving in a horse-drawn carriage. He or she would also traditionally wear the Imperial State Crown.
However, in recent times State Opening has involved, and might again involve, a lesser level of ceremony than normal.
The late Queen Elizabeth II wore ordinary clothes rather than the Robe of State for the ‘dressed-down’ State Openings of November 1939, which took place during World War II; March 1974, June 2017 and December 2019, when the State Opening followed early General Elections which had left insufficient time to prepare a full-scale ceremony; and May 2021, when the entire occasion had to be scaled-down owing to the Covid-19 pandemic.
For the State Openings after that of May 2016, even when she still wore the Robe of State the late Queen Elizabeth did not wear the Imperial State Crown owing to its weight. The Crown is also not worn if the Monarch has not yet been crowned, as occurred at the State Openings of 1936 and 1952. When the Monarch does not wear the Imperial State Crown, it is carried ahead of him or her.
The Monarch might travel to Parliament by car, rather than in a horse-drawn carriage. This was the arrangement for the State Openings of March 1974, June 2017, December 2019 and May 2021.
If the Monarch does not attend State Opening in person, the occasion is referred to as the 'Opening' of Parliament, not the 'State Opening'.
The late Queen Elizabeth II missed State Opening three times during her reign:
in 1959 and 1963, when she was pregnant; and
in 2022, when she was suffering mobility problems.
If the Monarch does not attend State Opening in person, other people are appointed to carry out the tasks that he or she normally carries out on the occasion.
During the last reign, this was done in two different ways:
If Lords Commissioners are appointed to act for the Monarch at State Opening, the Speech is read by the presiding Commissioner. In 1959 and 1963, this was the Lord Chancellor.
The Monarch appoints Lords Commissioners anew each time he or she needs them to act for him or her in Parliament. By the time the late Queen died in 2022 there was a regular line-up of Lords Commissioners, comprising the Leader of the House of Lords (the Lord Privy Seal), the Lord Speaker, and the leaders in the Lords of the Opposition, the third-largest party and the Crossbenchers (with the Leader of the House of Lords normally the presiding Commissioner). However the line-up had changed over time, and it would appear that the Monarch could appoint any Privy Counsellor to a Commission (including Privy Counsellors who are not Members of either House).
The Companion to the Standing Orders of the House of Lords, the most extensive official guide to occasions involving Lords Commissioners, notes that the presiding Commissioner is normally a Minister of Cabinet rank.
For the Opening of Parliament in May 2022, the late Queen for the first time in her reign delegated the opening of Parliament to two Counsellors of State, then-Prince Charles and Prince William, under Section 6 of the Regency Act 1937. Later in 2022, the Counsellors of State Act supplemented the Regency Acts so that the Counsellors of State now comprise the spouse of the Monarch, the first four in the line of succession (of full age) and, as new additions, the Earl of Wessex and the Princess Royal. In practice, only Counsellors of State who undertake public duties would be asked to act on behalf of the Monarch.
6:00pm, 6 November 2023
Hansard Society (2023), What is the State Opening of Parliament?, (Hansard Society: London)
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