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.”)
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.”