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.