Parliament and the Queen’s Speech

Let’s talk about the queen and Parliament. Why? Because it’ll give us an excuse to visit all sorts of traditional English lunacy.

Sorry, pageantry.

The queen appears in Parliament once a year, to deliver the Queen’s Speech, which gets so many capital letters that even I’ll use them, and I’m an aggressively lower-case kind of person. In fact, I’m capitalizing Parliament under protest. I have no idea why I’ve given in on that, but I do draw a line on capping the queen herself. Forget it. She’s lower case like the rest of us.

But back to our topic. The Queen’s Speech is Important. (Sorry—I had a cap left over and needed to get rid of it.) Why’s it so important? It’s one of those if-you-have-to-ask-you-won’t-understand things. Traditions like this make their own reasons, and this one dates back to the sixteenth century, although the current version dates back to 1852, when Parliament reopened after a fire.

Screamingly irrelevant photo: Trebarwith Strand

But let’s start with the older stuff: From there, we’ll gradually slide into the newer part–and we won’t any of us know when it happened.

To begin with, an MP (that’s a member of parliament) has to go to the Palace as a hostage to guarantee that Parliament will give the queen back when the hoopla’s over. (The BBC calls it ceremony. I was tempted to go with uproar. You can take your pick.) It’s not that relations between the Palace and the Parliament are that tense. They haven’t been for centuries, but why abandon a perfectly good bit of tradition just because it’s gotten old and silly? If we’re going to set standards like that, the whole country will collapse.

Then the cellars in Parliament have to be searched to make sure no one’s going to blow the place up, because someone did try roughly four centuries ago. His name was Guy Fawkes, and I assume the plot was real, although I should do some research and write about it one of these days. For now, though, if anyone knows enough to weigh in, please do.

While we’re waiting for that, though, we’ll turn to ITV to tell us a bit more.

“It was the State Opening of Parliament that Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plotters had in their sights in 1605. If they had succeeded they would have wiped out virtually every layer of British authority in one fell swoop. To avoid any repeat of the Plot, the cellars of the Houses of Parliament are still searched every year by the Yeomen of the Guard – the Queen’s traditional bodyguard – in advance of the State Opening. The search is only ceremonial – real life anti-terror measures take place separately and somewhat more rigorously.”

But they’re less picturesque, so forget about them.

During their search, the Yeomen of the Guard carry lanterns, which—I’m no explosives expert but I can take a guess here—aren’t the best thing to combine with the gunpowder they’re looking for. Maybe that has something to do with how sure they are that they won’t find any. Especially since (at least as I understand it) the floors they’re tapping no longer have hollow spaces underneath them because the cellars have been filled in.

You have to love this country.

Once Parliament is declared safe—or possibly before, since no one expects it not to be, except for the fact that the building’s falling apart and has become a fire trap—the queen “is escorted by the Household Cavalry Mounted Regiment and street liners guard the whole route and present arms as the royal party passes.

“The Regalia – the Imperial State Crown, the Cap of Maintenance and Sword of State travel in their own carriage, ahead of the monarch, escorted by Members of the Royal Household.”

If you feel like you’ve dropped into a Harry Potter novel, you’re not the only one.

Okay, now we’ve gotten her to the front door. Or not the front door, the Sovereign’s Entrance, which for all I know is the back door. Remember, things got a little tense for a while between her predecessors and Parliament.

“The Queen is met at the Palace of Westminster’s Sovereign’s Entrance by the Earl Marshal and the Lord Great Chamberlain, who, as Keeper of the Royal Palace, wears scarlet court dress and has hanging at his hip, the golden key to the Palace.

“As the Queen moves up the Sovereign’s Staircase to the Robing Chamber she passes between two lines of dismounted Household Cavalry soldiers in full dress with drawn swords.”

So now we’ve seen her inside and she’s surrounded by people with a golden key and great costumes, although, sadly, no horses.

Is gold too soft to make a useful key? I’d have thought so, but none of this has any bearing on real life. It’s pageantry, so keys don’t have to open doors and cellars that no longer exist still have to be searched.

In the next bit, we run into a problem The queen can’t enter the House of Commons. No king or queen has since 1642, when Charles I barged in and tried to arrest five MPs and kind of, um, lost his head. The Commons may not still be pissed off about it, but no one’s forgotten it either.

It’s okay, though, because if the queen can’t enter the Commons, her messenger can, so Black Rod, runs over for her and the door is ceremonially slammed in his face to demonstrate the Commons’ independence from the crown.

Now I could be wrong, but participating in this tightly choreographed, queen-centered uproar doesn’t strike me as a demonstration of independence, but then—as people often remind me when something British makes as little sense to me as all this does—I’m not British.

Anyway, Black Rod’s full title is the Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod, and he carries—yes—a black rod and wears fabulous, if outdated, clothes. He uses the rod to knock three times on the door that was just slammed in his face, and when he’s let in, he bows left and right while delivering a set invitation. (“The Queen commands this Honourable House…”)

Yup, commands. I guess that’s what passes for an invitation when you hang out with royalty. So much for independence from the crown. And yes, I’m sure someone will explain that the independence is political, or different, or specific, or all of the above, and I’m sure they’ll be right in a way. But I’m not British–or I am, but I’m also not. Either way, if you want to me to stop by for a cup of tea, keep an eye on how you word the invitation, would you? I don’t do well with commands.

The MPs are then led over to the House of Lords by the Sergeant-at-Arms, who’s spelled Serjeant and is carrying a mace.

Keep that mace in mind, because we’ll come back to it.

For the next stage of the ceremony, let’s turn back to the BBC. The link is above.

“MPs . . .follow Black Rod and the Commons Speaker to the Lords chamber, standing at the opposite end to the Throne, known as the Bar of the House, to listen to the speech.

“The speech itself is carried into the Chamber by the Lord Chancellor in a satchel. He hands the speech to the Sovereign and takes possession of it again once it has been delivered.

“Until a few years ago, the Speech was written on a rare form of calf’s skin known as vellum. It is now written on high-quality parchment paper.”

Do either of them feed through a computer printer? Or even a typewriter? Does the speech have to be written with a quill?

However it’s done, the queen doesn’t write her speech; all she does is read it out, and it’s basically a list of legislation the government hopes to pass in the next year—or occasionally two years—so it’s written for her by the government. Her government, as she (or the writer) puts it, as in, “My government will…”

And if she doesn’t like what the speech says? Tough. She reads it anyway. The queen’s supposed to be politically neutral. To my American sensibilities, the speech is a strange mix of the monarchical and the powerless, but it’s considered so important that when a government decides to skip a Queen’s Speech, say because they have a heavy agenda to implement and it will take two years instead of one, everyone takes notice.

This year–she gave the speech in June–she may have been signaling her opinion of the speech’s content. She traveled from the Palace in a car, not the traditional carriage (which looks like the one Cinderella’s godmother conjured up), and the procession to the Lords chamber was missing the usual heralds. Everybody in charge of anything was quick to point out that it all meant nothing—it was just a matter of logistics. And no one believes them.

But it’s harder to explain away what she wore: what ITV news called a day dress, along with a hat whose decorations looked a lot like the European Union flag. The hat ended up drawing more comment than the content of her speech. The going theory is that she’s not happy about Brexit.

‘What power? The power to deliver a speech she may not like although we can’t be sure because she’s not allowed to say.

What does she normally wear? Oh, lord. You really should go look at the photo, but I’ll do my best:

First off, a crown—the imperial state crown that’s already been mentioned. I’m probably supposed to cap that, but I just can’t face one more capital letter. I’d guess she has a crown to match every pair of shoes, but what do I know? She also wears the parliamentary robe, which is long and red and looks like it’s lined with ermine, although I wouldn’t know ermine if it bit me, which once it’s dead it’s not likely to do, so take that as a poetic way of saying it looks expensive. The lords in the House of Lords have ermine robes. At least those who aren’t vegetarians do. The vegetarians wear robes made from parsnips or something else that would easily pass for ermine if you were in the dark and very, very drunk. Which is probably what gave rise to the saying “Drunk as a lord.” It was originally “Drunk as a vegetarian lord who got into the parsnip wine,” but time scraped off the excess verbiage.

Where were we? I was trying to establish that I don’t know much about ermine but that I do have a reason for bringing it into the discussion.

Don’t you just learn a lot here?

This might be a good time to admit that I’m not entirely sure which piece of information comes from what source or exactly which piece of symbolism is displayed when. I’ve done so much cut and paste in trying to make a coherent narrative that I could easily mistake a parsnip for an ermine. But honestly, does it matter? We’ve seen so many symbols carted back and forth that we can be forgiven if we mix a few up. It’s not like we’re going to recreate the whole pageant at home, is it?

So let’s go back to that mace the House of Commons owns. Because, like every other symbol in this mess, it’s Important. It symbolizes the royal authority by which Parliament meets, as well as the authority of the House of Commons’ Speaker.

And, no doubt, its independence.

According to the BBC, “On each day that the House is sitting the mace is carried to the chamber at the head of the Speaker’s procession by the Serjeant at Arms.

“It is placed on the table of the House, except when the House is in committee, when it rests on two brackets underneath the table.

“Interfering with the mace constitutes gross disorderly conduct and is a contempt of the House,” and MPs can be suspended for it.

Several times since 1930, MPs have gotten mad enough to interfere with the mace. In fact, I chose 1930 because that’s when a Labour MP grabbed it and tried to storm out of the chamber. Was he going to take it home? Install it in his office? Toss it in the Thames? Sadly, we’ll never know because someone wrestled it away from him at the door.

In 1988, an MP was angry enough that he broke the thing—at which point you’d expect all business in the country to grind to a halt but it doesn’t seem to have.

You have to take a symbol seriously to focus your anger on it that way. It is, remember, an inanimate object. As such, it has even fewer political opinions than the queen. And in case you think such contempt of a governmental symbol would come entirely from the left, it doesn’t—it seems to be equally distributed between left and right, although I admit I haven’t made a spreadsheet.

You can read more about the incidents here. I’m particularly fond of the Conservative who lost it when a Labour MP sang the Labour Party anthem at him during a debate about the shipping and—as it’s spelled here—aerospace industries. If you’d like to stage that at home, the anthem follows the tune of “O Tannenbaum” (also known “O Christmas Tree”) and the first lines are “The workers’ flag is deepest red / It’s shrouded oft our martyred dead.”

It’s not the cheeriest set of lyrics I know, but labor history’s blood-drenched enough to justify it.

I don’t know the first lines of the debate about shipping. You’ll have to improvise.

78 thoughts on “Parliament and the Queen’s Speech

  1. I often forget what a weird country I come from. Thanks for reminding me. Colleagues are wondering what I’m laughing about here. Everything really but especially the parsnips. Thank you for my Friday morning guffaw (don’t you just love that word)

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I’m impressed by the trouble and time you went to to research and write all this spaced-out stuff. Could it be that deep down you just love the hoopla? :) I don’t mind saying I quite like the Queen (yes, upper-case!), am all for her choice of often violently coloured dresses, coats and hats, and more seriously … admire a woman dedicated to her job through decades of Brit turmoil. And yes, she’s probably appalled by Brexit but all things considered doesn’t expect to be around when the shit really hits the fan :)

    Liked by 2 people

    • The Queen wears those bright coloured clothes and the hats so that she can be seen among the inevitable crowds when she’s out and about on formal visits. She doesn’t wear stuff like that in private.

      Liked by 2 people

        • Yes, it really is true. I remember reading about this ages ago, but can’t remember where, so I’ve just googled “why does the queen wear bright colours” and got a link to the Readers Digest site : which quotes her daughter-in-law Sophie, Countess of Wessex::
          “She needs to stand out for people to be able to say ‘I saw the Queen’,” Sophie said in the documentary The Queen at 90. “Don’t forget that when she turns up somewhere, the crowds are two, three, four, 10, 15 deep, and someone wants to be able to say they saw a bit of the queen’s hat as she went past.”

          Liked by 1 person

  3. I fully expect that by the end or Mr. Trump’s term, he won’t be allowed to visit the Capital. Since that might make him seem more like royalty, he will probably agree. Thanks for the history lesson. Seems like a lot of work, maybe she should consider Skype.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. “Oh Tannenbaum” is also the tune of” Maryland, My Maryland” which, at the time of the War Between the States (the first one, not the current one) included the words
    “Avenge the patriotic gore
    That flecks the streets of Baltimore…”

    Apparently the Queen is as much a prisoner of the Systerm as any of her subjects.At least she is more subtle than to wear a tee shirt with a slogan as a form of protest ! Food for thought.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Had I known how informative and interesting this post would be, I might have dressed differently for the occasion. I felt rather shabby in my t-shirt and jeans. Sadly, my tiara is at the cleaners (and my free-range ermine has been liberated…).

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Upper case if it’s Queen Elizabeth, of course. Ultimately, all the daft ritual is to remind everyone (queen, parliament and us the voters) where sovereignty actually lies (i.e. NOT with her anymore). Civil wars, constitutional crises and Brexit votes have been fought over the issue of sovereignty – so it’s not to be taken lightly!!! (I am only half joking here).

    Liked by 1 person

  7. > It’s not like we’re going to recreate the whole pageant at home, is it?
    Why not? It’s something to do when the shops are shut.

    Yes, a lot of this ritual is just that – ritual – and it looks rather silly now, but people like their rituals don’t they? I’m sure there are plenty of traditions around government in the USA, but, being a younger country, said traditions haven’t yet become sufficiently disconnected from history that they now appear meaningless. It’ll happen though – just give it a couple of hundred more years.

    The Queen’s speech is a relic,but as relics go it’s not all that old. Although the British like to go on about the long history and respectability of their democracy, it’s actually not quite a simple as that. Parliament has been around in some form or other for something like six hundred years, but even as recently as the 18th century it wasn’t independent of the monarchy, and elections certainly weren’t representative of the population as a whole, or even fairly run. And In the 18th century, it was still the king/queen who appointed the prime minister, not a political party and an election. We still retain vestiges of that relationship in the rituals and traditions surrounding the opening of parliament, almost, I think, to remind ourselves that nowadays we really do have a proper democratically elected parliament that’s independent of the crown.

    I’m not a republican, (little “r”, meaning I don’t want to do away withe the British royal family), but I certainly do want to see a decent system of porportional representation established in the UK.

    And if you’re looking for a purposely designed democracy (as opposed to the British one, which just sort of evolved by accident), you only have to look to the United States of America of course.

    Liked by 1 person

      • Yes, well the US democracy isn’t exactly setting an example of good government right now, but in some ways it’s doing what democracies are meant to do:
        1) The people are allowed to elect who they want, even if that person is incompetent and/or an idiot.
        2) Once said person is elected, there are limits to their power set in place by the democratic institutions (and usually a constitution) surrounding them.

        Unlike autocracies of course, where the population get governed by whoever wins the power struggle and successfully vanquishes their political opponents. At least Trump won’t be in power for more than eight years, and there are plenty of legitimate means to limit his ability to wreak havoc and people willing to exercise them. Much harder to do that in countries without democracies, or those with a pretence of democracy.

        Liked by 1 person

  8. I may be from Britain, but this is a whole heap of tradition, rigmarole, and ridiculousness that is beyond me to fathom let alone explain. You’ve done a cracking job of distilling all of the nonsense into a coherent post. Sometimes I think all of these arcane rules and bit of pageantry are deliberately designed to be distancing to remind we proles that we aren’t of the same stock as the participants.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. We ‘celebrate’ Guy Fawkes day in South Africa, even though very few people know who the guy was and why fireworks are used every year. Every year I curse this tradition for what the noise of the fireworks do to animals. I remember the first few lines of an English folk poem from my childhood (ages ago). I wonder how many British people know it: “Remember, remember, the fifth of November, gunpowder, treason, plot. I see no reasons why gunpowder treason, should ever be forgot.” Strange that I remember this irrelevant poem, while things that happened yesterday, are vague. Sigh. Old age….

    Liked by 1 person

    • The only part of that I hear quoted are “Remember, remember, the fifth of November.” I just thought it was a handy way to remember the date of the holiday–which since I’m an outsider, I need. Unfortunately, it also rhymes with September and December, and the third or fourth would dit in neatly as well, but at least I know it’s not June or July.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. That all sounds perfectly normal to me and I feel sorry for countries that don’t have all the dressing up and ceremony.

    Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot (more capitals) were real. The seventeenth century began with a plot to kill a Protestant king and ended with a coup against a Catholic one. We’ve calmed down a bit since then.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. We literally just finished a documentary the other night that featured all of the “unique” traditions of the Queen’s annual speech to parliament. But your essay is much more interesting and enjoyable. Plus, there are no capital letters on television. Well done! – Marty

    Liked by 1 person

  12. I don’t even know where to start… I will say that I’m a vegetarian and my last name is Mace (with a capital M) and even with those tenuous connections to your story ummm history I am at a loss. What would happen if the queen wore purple instead of red? Does black rod get teased because..well you know! All I know is that if they try to break the Mace again, I’m outta there!

    Liked by 1 person

  13. I love reading about traditions. They may seem silly in today’s world, but each has a story drenched in mystery and/or necessity and/or off-with-your-headedness. Totally interesting! I loved this. Thank you for enlightening me.
    (P.S. I didn’t know ANY of this!)

    Liked by 1 person

    • I love your summary of the stories traditions carry–mystery, necessity, off-with-your–headedness. That pretty much covers it. (I just read your Gravatar bio and am happy to know you’re the Keeper of the Apple Crisp. Our apples just started ripening and we have about a quarter of an apple crisp left at the moment. I’m not sure how long I can keep it and may have to ask for your help.)


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