Monday, 24 May 2010

Pomp on a budget

Tomorrow is the State Opening of the new Parliament. At 11am, the Queen will travel from Buckingham palace to the Houses of Parliament in an ornate horse drawn carriage, escorted by hundreds of soldiers on horseback and dressed in traditionally uniform. When she gets to Parliament, the Queen will enter the Robing Room where she'll put on the diamond encrusted Imperial State Crown. From there, the Queen will walk to the House of Lords where she'll sit on a golden thrown and say "My Lords and Members of the House of Commons, my Government's overriding priority is to… find ways of saving money" - or words to that effect.

To be fair to Her Majesty, the carriage, the crown, the thrown, et cetera are not her personal property (they belong to the state) and the words of the speech will have been written by David Cameron. But the Queen, along with almost every government department, will have to go through their budgets and find any possible saving to reduce expenditure. The Queen actually has a reputation for frugality with public money, so she shouldn't have a problem doing this. Departments of State in recent years however, have had a culture of extravagance which makes the Imperial State Crown look thrifty. This culture will now have to change.

One thing which won't change is the ceremony of the State Opening. Before giving her speech, the Queen will send Black Rod (her representative in Parliament) down to the House of Commons to ask the MPs to come and listen to her speech. Black Rod will then walk to the Commons, but before he reaches the door to the chamber, the MPs will slam it in his face and he'll have to knock three times (using his black rod) to gain entry.

The tradition now looks slightly comic, but it has a very serious history. On 4 January 1642, King Charles I attempted to enter the chamber of the House of Commons in order to arrest five of its members. The MPs were so angered by this that they slammed the door of the chamber in the faces of the King's soldiers. The troops were only able to open the door by ramming it (three times). When King Charles finally entered the chamber he found the five members he'd come to arrest were not there, and when the King asked Speaker William Lenthall where the men were, Mr. Speaker refused to tell him, saying "I have neither eyes to see nor tongue to speak in this place but as the House is pleased to direct me" (in those days, that was considered to be a major snub). This was the last time a monarch entered the chamber of the House of Commons, and King Charles ended up being tried and executed by Parliament.

The ceremonial slamming of the door is supposed to represent the separation of Parliament and monarchy, but in modern times it has come to represent Parliament's independence from the often domineering government, more than the now powerless monarchy.

Tomorrow the MPs will be slightly more polite than they were in 1642. Once Black Rod is let into the chamber, he will say the words "Mr. Speaker, the Queen commands this honourable House to attend Her Majesty immediately in the House of Peers." At which point Dennis Skinner (the MP for Bolsover and a notable republican) will shout an insult at Black Rod, before all the MPs, led by the Speaker, the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition, walk to the House of Lords where they'll listen to the Queen read the speech, which details the legislative programme in the new session of Parliament. For the last few hundred years, the speech has actually been written by the Prime Minister of the day.

Queen Elizabeth is quite use to this ceremony as she has been doing it since she came to the thrown in 1952 and has only missed it twice (when she was pregnant). Although this is the first speech to be written by her newest Prime Minister and it is also the first time in her reign the Queen has read the legislative programme of a coalition government - there hasn't been one since her father was on the thrown.

This year's speech will detail some of the spending cuts to public services in an attempt to lower the UK's massive budget deficit. For a time the coalition will be able to blame the last government for the painful times ahead in public services, but David Cameron must know that this tick won't last very long.

The Queen my read out the speech, but it's the man who wrote it that will get the blame for what it says. Perhaps, when Black Rod knocks on the door tomorrow, David Cameron might be tempted to tell him to go away.

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