Inside the King’s Speech: The British parliament’s weirdest tradition

LONDON: A person unschooled in the peculiarities of the state opening of the British parliament might assume that King Charles III was a powerful head of state.

Central London — and even the airspace above Westminster — is closed off for the day so the king can ride to parliament in a grand horse-drawn carriage. Once he has changed into his ceremonial robes and imperial state crown, he and Queen Camilla will proceed through the royal gallery to the ornate House of Lords chamber.

Finally, the king sits on a gleaming golden throne, surrounded by peers (members of the Lords) wearing ermine robes.

If all this pomp and ceremony appears to place the king at the top of the power pyramid, with peers situated just below, humble members of parliament — the only elected part of Westminster’s bizarre power structure — are treated as if they sit right at the bottom.

According to time-honored tradition, Black Rod — a high-ranking parliamentary official, not a dark-colored stick — hammers on the door of the House of Commons to “summons” MPs to attend the king and peers. Only a few dozen MPs can actually squeeze into the Lords chamber, however, standing together at one end behind the “bar of the house” — a line beyond which they may not venture.

The king will then read a speech setting out the government’s legislative agenda for the year ahead.

The speech itself bears some resemblance to a State of the Union address — only the monarch hasn’t written a word of it, and might not even agree with much of its content. This year’s address will be the first King’s Speech (delivered in person, at least) since 1950 — in the interim, Queen Elizabeth II delivered more than 60 Queen’s Speeches during her epic reign.

The entire ceremony is something of a charade.

In reality, it’s the MPs at the bottom of the power pyramid who have all the power, for it is they — or rather those among them who are ministers of the crown — who have planned and drafted the “gracious” speech.

Peers will vote on aspects of it — though with no real power of veto, and with no say at all over issues related to the nation’s finances. The monarch will simply rubber stamp all bills agreed by both houses with his own royal assent.

In this sense the state opening of parliament is a conjuring trick, typical of the U.K.’s uncodified constitution. It manages to demonstrate the “majesty” of the king, the historical importance of peers, and the political clout of MPs, all in the same archaic ceremony.

And, like the British constitution itself, it’s as old as the hills.

There have been attempts in the past to scrap the state opening | Pool photo by Arthur Edwards via Getty Images

Historians have identified documentary evidence of state openings from as early as the 14th century, and while members of the public were initially not welcome to come and gawp at the proceedings, over time the procession to parliament has offered subjects a rare opportunity to see their monarch in the flesh.

In 1605, Guy Fawkes famously tried to blow up parliament during its state opening. To this day, the Yeomen of the Guard “search” the cellars below Westminster to make sure no one is planning a similar act.

Another important tradition dates from the same period. Before Black Rod is allowed to summon the Commons to the Lords, a door is slammed in her face and she has to knock (or rather strike) it three times in order to gain entry. These moments symbolise the supremacy of the elected chamber. The current door — which is only a couple of centuries old — bears the imprint of repeated strikes.

Then there are more recent traditions, including a junior government whip being held “captive” at Buckingham Palace to ensure the safe return of the king This proves to be a very pleasant form of captivity, during which the whip is offered an alcoholic drink while they watch the pageantry on TV.

This year’s event will represent a return to the “full ceremonial” which last took place in October 2019. Since then, a pandemic and the declining health of the late Queen Elizabeth II saw proceedings stripped back. But as demonstrated by the May coronation, Britain’s new king doesn’t really do scaled-down.

Certainly, the full-blown version of the ceremony is something to behold.

The king arrives at the sovereign’s entrance — yes, he has his own doorway — at the southern tip of the parliamentary estate, where he is received by ancient officers of state known as the Lord Great Chamberlain and the Earl Marshal.

As the monarch ascends the royal staircase, this pair traditionally walk backward — so as never to turn their backs on the king — while carrying their “wands” of office. The Lord Chancellor — the Secretary of State for Justice — is also in attendance, carrying a “purse” containing the main copy of the King’s Speech.

Once dressed in suitably lavish attire, the king (with Queen Camilla) will process through the royal gallery accompanied by “heralds” and “pursuivants” — men and women wearing Alice-in-Wonderland-style tabards. The Sword of State and the Cap of Maintenance, two symbols of royal authority, are carried before the monarch. Penny Mordaunt will be there, too, as Lord President of the Council, although this time — unlike at the coronation — someone else gets to carry the sword.

There have been attempts in the past to scrap the state opening, and even to have an elected politician unveil the government’s legislative agenda.

Back in the late 1990s, Tony Blair’s modernizing Labour government made it known that it regarded the ceremony as “peculiar.”

Buckingham Palace, however, exerted a little of its legendary soft power, and the plans for reform were quietly dropped.

A quarter of a century later, the state opening of parliament soldiers on.

(Courtesy : POLITICO)