- State Opening of Parliament
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In the United Kingdom, the State Opening of Parliament is an annual event that marks the commencement of a session of the Parliament of the United Kingdom. It is held in the House of Lords Chamber, usually in November or December or, in a general election year, when the new Parliament first assembles. In 1974, when two general elections were held, there were two State Openings.
The current Sovereign, Queen Elizabeth II, has opened every session of the Westminster Parliament since her accession except in 1959 and 1963, when she was pregnant with Prince Andrew and Prince Edward, respectively. These two sessions were opened by Lords Commissioners, headed by Geoffrey Fisher, the Archbishop of Canterbury, empowered by Her Majesty. The Lord Chancellor read the Queen's Speech on both occasions.
The State Opening is a lavish ceremony. First, the cellars of the Palace of Westminster are searched by the Yeomen of the Guard in order to prevent a modern-day Gunpowder Plot. The Plot of 1605 involved a failed attempt by English Catholics to blow up the Houses of Parliament and kill the Protestant King James I and aristocracy. Since that year, the cellars have been searched, recently for the sake of form only.
Before the monarch departs her residence, the Crown takes a member of the House of Commons to Buckingham Palace as a ceremonial hostage. This is to guarantee the safety of the Sovereign as she enters a possibly-hostile Parliament. The hostage is released upon the safe return of the Queen. This tradition stems from the time of Charles I, who had a contentious relationship with Parliament and was eventually beheaded in 1649 at the conclusion of a civil war between the monarchy and Parliament. In 1642 Charles I stormed into the House of Commons in an unsuccessful attempt to arrest five of its members for treason. Since that time no British monarch has been permitted to enter the House of Commons, which is why the opening is conducted in the House of Lords.
Before the arrival of the sovereign the Imperial State Crown is carried to the Palace of Westminster in its own State Coach. From the Victoria Tower, the Crown is passed by the Queen's Bargemaster to the Comptroller of the Lord Chamberlain's office. It is then carried, along with the Great Sword of State and the Cap of Maintenance, to be displayed in the Royal Gallery.
Arrival of the Sovereign and assembly of parliament
The Queen arrives at the Palace of Westminster in a horse-drawn coach, entering through Sovereign's Entrance under the Victoria Tower. Traditionally, members of the armed forces line the procession route from Buckingham Palace to the Palace of Westminster. The Royal Standard is hoisted to replace the Union Flag upon the Sovereign's entrance and remains whilst she is in attendance. Then, after she takes on the Parliament Robe of State and Imperial State Crown in the Robing Chamber, the Queen proceeds through the Royal Gallery to the House of Lords, usually accompanied by the Duke of Edinburgh and immediately preceded by the Lord Great Chamberlain, the Earl Marshal, the Leader of the House of Lords carrying the Cap of Maintenance on a white rod, and a peer carrying the Great Sword of State. Once on the throne, the Queen, wearing the Imperial State Crown, instructs the House by saying, "My Lords, pray be seated".
Motioned by the Monarch, the Lord Great Chamberlain raises his wand of office to signal to the Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod (known as Black Rod), who is charged with summoning the House of Commons and has been waiting in the Commons lobby. Black Rod turns and, under the escort of the Doorkeeper of the House of Lords and an inspector of police (who orders "Hats off, Strangers!" to all persons along the way), approaches the doors to the Chamber of the Commons. The doors are slammed in his face upon his approach – symbolising the independence of the Commons and its right to debate without the presence of the Queen's Representative. He then strikes three times with his staff (the Black Rod), and is then admitted. At the bar, Black Rod bows to the speaker before proceeding to the dispatch box and issuing the command of the monarch that the Commons attend, in the following formula:
"Mr Speaker, The Queen commands this honourable House to attend Her Majesty immediately in the House of Peers."
By unnoficial tradition, in recent years this has been greeted with a sarcastic comment by republican Labour MP Dennis Skinner. The Speaker proceeds to attend the summons at once. The Serjeant-at-Arms picks up the ceremonial mace and, with the Speaker and Black Rod, leads the Members of the House of Commons as they walk, in pairs, towards the House of Lords. By custom, the members saunter, with much discussion and joking, rather than formally process. The Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition usually walk side-by-side, leading the two lines of MPs. The Commons then arrive at the Bar of the House of Lords (no person who is not a member of the Upper House may pass the Bar unbidden when it is in session; a similar rule applies to the Commons), where they bow to The Queen. They remain at the Bar for the speech.
Delivery of the speech
The Queen reads a prepared speech, known as the "Speech from the Throne" or the "Queen's Speech", outlining her Government's agenda for the coming year. The speech is not written by the Queen, but rather by the Cabinet, and reflects the legislative agenda for which they seek the agreement of both Houses of Parliament. It is traditionally written on goatskin vellum, and presented for Her Majesty to read by the Lord Chancellor, who then, rather than turning his back on Her Majesty, walks backwards down the steps of the throne without stumbling. During the 2010 State Opening, however, Lord Chancellor Kenneth Clarke did turn his back on The Queen; he also restored the wig formerly worn by the Lord Chancellor.
The whole speech is addressed to "My Lords and Members of the House of Commons", with one significant exception that Her Majesty says specifically, "Members of the House of Commons, estimates for the public services will be laid before you", since the Budget is constitutionally reserved to the Commons.
The Queen reads the entire speech in a neutral tone, implying neither approval nor disapproval of the proposals of Her Majesty's Government: the Queen makes constant reference to "My Government" when reading the text. After listing the main bills to be introduced during the session, the Queen states: "other measures will be laid before you", thus leaving the Government scope to introduce bills not mentioned in the speech. The Queen mentions any State Visits that she intends to make and also any planned State Visits of foreign Heads of State to the United Kingdom during the Parliamentary session. The speech is concluded by the Queen saying:
"My Lords and Members of the House of Commons, I pray that the blessing of Almighty God may rest upon your counsels".
Following the speech, the Commons bow again and return to their Chamber.
Traditionally, the members of both Houses of Parliament listen to the Queen's Speech respectfully, neither applauding nor showing dissent towards the speech's contents before it is debated in each House. This silence, however, was broken in 1998, when the Queen announced the Government's plan of abolishing the right of hereditary peers to sit in the House of Lords. A few Labour members of the House of Commons cried "yes" and "hear hear", prompting several of the Lords to shout "no" and "shame". The Queen continued delivering her speech without any pause, ignoring the intervention. The conduct of those who interrupted the speech was highly criticised at the time.
Debate on the speech
After the Queen leaves, each Chamber proceeds to the consideration of an "Address in Reply to Her Majesty's Gracious Speech." But first, each House considers a bill pro forma to symbolise their right to deliberate independently of the monarch. In the House of Lords, the bill is called the Select Vestries Bill, while the Commons equivalent is the Outlawries Bill. The Bills are considered for the sake of form only, and do not make any actual progress. The consideration of the address in reply to the Throne Speech is the occasion for a debate on the Government's agenda. The debate on the Address in Reply is spread over several days. On each day, a different topic, such as foreign affairs or finance, is considered. The debate provides an indication of the views of Parliament regarding the government's agenda.
The State Opening of Parliament is a ceremony loaded with historical ritual and symbolic significance for the governance of the United Kingdom. In one place are assembled the members of all three branches of government, of which the Monarch is the nominal head in each case: the Crown-in-Parliament, (Her Majesty, together with the House of Commons and the House of Lords), constitutes the legislature; Her Majesty's Ministers (who are members of one or other House) constitute the executive; Her Majesty's Judges, although not members of either House, are summoned to attend and represent the judiciary. Therefore, the State Opening demonstrates the governance of the United Kingdom but also the separation of powers.
Equivalents in other countries
Similar ceremonies are held in other Commonwealth realms, such as Canada, New Zealand and Australia. The Governor General, or in the case of Australia's states and Canada's Provinces, the Governor or Lieutenant Governor, usually delivers the Speech from the Throne. On rare occasions, the Queen visits so as to open these parliaments and deliver the speech herself. In Canada, this was done twice: 14 October 1957 and 18 October 1977.
In India, the President opens Parliament with an address similar to the Speech from the Throne. This is also the case in Commonwealth Republics with a non-executive Presidency such as Malta, Mauritius and Singapore.
In the Netherlands a similar ceremony is held on the third Tuesday in September, which is called Prinsjesdag in the Netherlands. In Sweden a similar ceremony as the British was held until 1974, when the constitution was changed. The old opening of state was in Sweden called Riksdagens högtidliga öppnande ("The solemn opening of the Riksdag") and was, as the British, full of symbolism. After the abolition of the old state opening, the opening is now held in the Riksdag but in the presence of the monarch and his family. It is still the King who officially opens the parliament. After the opening of parliament the King gives a speech followed by the Prime Minister's declaration of government. In Israel, a semi-annual ceremony, attended by the President, opens the winter and summer sessions of the Knesset. Though in the past he was a guest sitting in the Knesset's upper deck, the President now attends the ceremony from the speaker's podium and gives his own written address regarding the upcoming session. In the first session of each legislative period of the Knesset, the President has the duty of opening the first session himself and inaugurating the temporary Knesset speaker, and then conducting the inauguration process of all of the Knesset members.
In some countries with presidential or similar systems in which the roles of head of state and head of government are merged, the chief executive's annual speech to the legislative branch is imbued with some of the ceremonial weight of a parliamentary state opening. The most well-known example is the State of the Union Address in the United States. Other examples include the State of the Nation Address in the Philippines, a former American dependency. These speeches differ from a State Opening in at least two respects, however: They don't actually open the legislative session, and they are delivered by the chief executive on his or her own behalf.
- ^ "State Opening of Parliament". Parliament of the United Kingdom. 6 October 2009. http://www.parliament.uk/faq/lords_stateopening.cfm. Retrieved 14 October 2009.
- ^ Over this robe is wore the collar and George of the Order of the Garter; the George used is a larger than usual gold representation of St. George slaying a dragon and heavily set with diamonds made for George III.
- ^ The peers also wear their Parliement Robes, also made of crimson velvet and miniver (although the miniver is now often replaced with the much cheaper white rabbit fur). These robes are closed over the right shoulder with bands of gold lace and miniver--four for a duke; three and a half for a marquess; three for an earl or countess; two and a half for a viscount or viscountess and two for a baron or baroness.
- ^ "1998: Queen's speech to end peers". BBC News. 31 May 2007. http://news.bbc.co.uk/player/nol/newsid_6710000/newsid_6710100/6710121.stm?bw=bb&mp=wm&news=1&bbcws=1.
- ^ "1998: Queen's speech spells end for peers". BBC News. 24 November 1998. http://news.bbc.co.uk/onthisday/hi/dates/stories/november/24/newsid_4007000/4007601.stm.
- ^ The Role and the Powers of the Canadian Crown Today
- c-spanvideos of State Openings since late 1980s
- State Opening at UK Parliament website
- Costs of State Opening from Hansard
- Photos of the Ceremony in 2006
- Photos of the Ceremony in 2008
Royal ceremonies of the British monarch State Social Traditional Related
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