State Opening of Parliament

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The State Opening of Parliament is an annual event which marks the beginning of the parliamentary session and states the programme and policies of the government in the Queen’s speech. The ceremony is conducted with a lot of pomp and is rich in symbolical meaning.

Usually it takes place in November. If there is a general election, however, the ceremony will take place in May directly after that election. In this case the next Opening of Parliament will take place in November of the following year.


The Queen’s Speech

All three constituent parts of the British Parliament – the Monarch, the House of Lords and the House of Commons – participate in this ceremony and at last come together in the House of Lords to hear the Queen’s Speech. This speech is central to the event as it outlines the government’s policies and plans for the coming parliamentary session. It is normally about ten minutes long and written by the Prime Minister. The Queen only reads it out aloud. The last words always are “other measures will be laid before you” which allows the government to introduce other laws if required.

Afterwards a debate of the programme and policies takes place in both of the houses and regular business of Parliament is commenced.


Symbols and Rituals

The ceremony of the State Opening of Parliament is highly symbolic and contains some rituals that mark it as an event of tradition and history.


Before the Monarch even starts his or her procession from Buckingham Palace to the Houses of Parliament the Yeomen of the Guard search the latter for bombs (especially the cellars) as a reminder of the Gunpowder Plot (a plan to blow up the Houses of Parliament with everyone in them on the opening of Parliament on 5 November 1605). The monarch then sets out from Buckingham Palace in a horse-drawn stage coach, which is richly ornamented. This procession is watched by thousands of people on the streets and on television every year.


When the monarch arrives at the Houses of Parliament he /she is given the Imperial State Crown and his/her robe, and then enters the House of Lords. The current monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, is usually accompanied by her husband, Prince Philip and has only ever missed two Openings of Parliament due to pregnancy since 1952.


Before the reading of the speech can start the Members of the House of Commons have to be summoned to the House of Lords. The so-called Gentlemen Usher of the Black Rod (or just “Black Rod”) goes up to the House of Commons where the door is closed in his face as a symbol of the Common’s independence. He then needs to knock on that door three times to be let in. Entering the House of Commons he bows a few times and then addresses the commons with the sentence: “Mr Speaker, The Queen commands this honourable House to attend Her Majesty immediately in the House of Peers”, after which the Members of the Commons slowly and while making jokes make their way to the House of Lords in order to listen to the Queen’s Speech.


The Origins of the Opening of Parliament

The presence of the King during Parliament goes back to the middle ages. The pomp and rituals of this particular ceremony, however, are probably an invention of Victorian times. Still, the procedure of a speech made by the monarch, which is then to be discussed by the Houses of Commons and Lords in order to improve government was already in practice in the 14th century.

The exact origin of this ceremony and the date of its introduction are unknown.

Sources

Homepage of the British Parliament --> http://www.parliament.uk/business/news/2010/05/state-opening-25-may-2010/

A video showing the Black Rod ritual --> http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h1bJ8nY2pcc

Riding, Christine: Pomp and Circumstance at Westminster --> http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/trail/church_state/westminster_later/pomp_and_westminster_01.shtml

BBC Political Correspondent Ben Wright about the Queen's Speech --> http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/politics/8701771.stm