The Traditional Apex of Britain’s Untraditional Moment

The State Opening of Parliament and the accompanying Queen’s Speech are steeped in ritual and custom, something that feels incongruous as the country grapples with chaos.

Pool / Reuters

A grand carriage procession, a royal “hostage,” a ceremonial sword. Britain’s State Opening of Parliament, and the Queen’s Speech that accompanies it, are nothing if not extravagant—an event more so than any other in British politics that is beholden to ritual and tradition.

For a ceremony replete with colorful customs, however, this year’s Queen’s Speech couldn’t have come at a more untraditional time for Britain. Politically, the government has no majority, an election is imminent (though no one knows when), and the country is careening toward a cliff-edge exit from the European Union, without a withdrawal agreement to cushion the fall. And on a deeper level, major constitutional questions are suddenly up for debate, from the strength and sovereignty of Parliament to the power of the executive and the role of the monarch in relation to the legislature.

It was against this tumultuous backdrop that Queen Elizabeth II made the short journey from Buckingham Palace to the Palace of Westminster today to deliver her ceremonial address outlining the government’s legislative agenda for the new parliamentary year. From the elaborate costumes and royal regalia to the theatrical nodding, the Queen’s Speech looks nothing like the Westminster politics that can be streamed online most days of the week. For one, it takes place not in the House of Commons, but across the palace, in the less observed House of Lords. And though the words are drafted by the government, they are delivered by the queen, who, donning an 18-foot crimson Robe of State, addresses lawmakers from a gilded throne. (Though the Imperial State Crown is always present for the ceremony, the queen hasn’t worn it in recent years because of its weight. “You can’t look down to read the speech,” the queen told the BBC last year, “because if you did, your neck would break.”)

Queen Elizabeth II rides in a coach to Parliament to deliver the Queen's Speech.
Queen Elizabeth II rides in a coach to Parliament to deliver the Queen's Speech in October 1962. (AP)

But even the pomp and pageantry of today’s event couldn’t overshadow all the political controversy surrounding it. After all, it was only last month that Prime Minister Boris Johnson stood accused of lying to the queen about his original bid to suspend Parliament (an otherwise usual move made controversial by its unusually long duration), which was later ruled unlawful by Britain’s Supreme Court. That the country is just weeks away from its October 31 Brexit deadline and likely headed for a general election (which could prompt yet another Queen’s Speech) led several lawmakers to declare the State Opening a “sham.”

Read: The never-ending Brexit crisis

Still, as the only regular occasion to include all three central elements of Parliament—the House of Commons, the House of Lords, and the crown—the Queen’s Speech remains a deeply symbolic event. For the queen, it reaffirms her role as the country’s constitutional, albeit politically neutral, head of state. For Parliament, however, it’s an opportunity to remind the monarch who is really in charge. In addition to the customary heckle from the veteran Labour lawmaker Dennis Skinner (who is known for his republican, or anti-monarchy, sentiments), the Commons famously demonstrates its authority by slamming the chamber’s doors in the face of Black Rod, the traditional gatekeeper of the House of Lords sent by the queen to summon the members of Parliament. Only after knocking three times is Black Rod eventually permitted inside.

“No monarch has entered the House of Commons since Charles I—and you know what happened to him,” Richard Fitzwilliams, a commentator on the royal family, told me of the tradition, which dates back to the fractious relationship between Parliament and the crown that led to Charles I’s execution during the English Civil War. (A copy of the monarch’s death certificate is displayed in the robing room used by the queen before the ceremony as a further reminder of Parliament’s sovereignty.)

Many of these traditions take place behind the scenes. Ahead of the ceremony, the Yeomen of the Guard, the queen’s official royal bodyguards, conduct a sweep of the Westminster cellars for explosives, in commemoration of the failed 17th-century Gunpowder Plot by Guy Fawkes to blow up the State Opening of Parliament. As a further precaution, Buckingham Palace takes a member of Parliament “hostage” in order to ensure the queen’s safe return. This year’s hostage was Conservative MP Stuart Andrew. (Jim Fitzpatrick, a Labour lawmaker who was held hostage in 2014, said he was permitted to wander around the palace and even enjoy a coffee or a gin and tonic. “But they made it quite clear that I wasn’t going anywhere,” he said.)

Queen Elizabeth II reads the Queen's Speech during the State Opening of Parliament in October 1996.
Queen Elizabeth II reads the Queen's Speech during the State Opening of Parliament in October 1996. (Max Nash / Pool / AP)

For all the symbolism and ceremonial significance of the Queen’s Speech, there is a practical political element, too. Soon after the speech is delivered, its contents are moved back to the House of Commons to be debated and voted on. This poses an issue for Johnson, whose lack of a parliamentary majority has already seen him lose a series of votes. To be defeated on the Queen’s Speech wouldn’t just constitute a lack of confidence in his government, but would also put his premiership in a constitutional gray area: The last time a prime minister lost a vote on a Queen’s Speech, in 1924, he resigned (something Johnson would be loath to do). More recent laws, however, require that lawmakers hold a formal no-confidence vote to depose a prime minister—something opposition parliamentarians have declined to do until they can remove the threat of a no-deal Brexit.

Many of the customs and much of the choreography surrounding the Queen’s Speech haven’t changed much since the 1852 Opening of Parliament, on which the modern ceremony is based. In some ways, Fitzwilliams said, they are more important than ever before. “The question marks that remain over what’s going to happen even in the next month are just extraordinary,” he said. “When you’ve got the political chaos that you have at the moment, it is interesting and perhaps reassuring that some traditions are observed.”