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politics and government of
the United Kingdom
The State Opening of Parliament is an event in the United Kingdom that marks the commencement of a session of the Parliament of the United Kingdom and includes a Speech from the Throne. In many other countries, a similar speech from the throne is given by their head of state to their national legislature at or near the opening of a new legislative session. In Commonwealth nations that recognize Queen Elizabeth II as Head of State, the Governor-General of the nation gives the Speech from the Throne as the Queen's representative.
The State Opening takes place in the House of Lords Chamber and, before 2011, was usually held in November or December or, in a general election year, when the new Parliament first assembled. In 1974, when two general elections were held, there were two State Openings.
However, from 2012 onwards, the ceremony takes place in May. This is owing to the introduction in 2011 of fixed-term parliaments of five years in length, with parliamentary elections being subsequently held in the May of every year divisible by five, with the next such election being scheduled for 2015. The 2012 ceremony took place on 9 May and the 2013 date was 8 May.
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 the Archbishop of Canterbury (Geoffrey Fisher in 1959, and Michael Ramsey in 1963), empowered by Her Majesty. The Lord Chancellor (The Viscount Kilmuir in 1959, The Lord Dilhorne in 1963) read the Queen's Speech on those occasions.
The State Opening is a lavish ceremony of several parts:
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, now largely but not only for ceremonial purposes.
The peers assemble in the House of Lords wearing their robes. They are joined by senior representatives of the judiciary and members of the diplomatic corps. Peeresses also attend and are seated in the chamber. The Commons assemble in their own chamber, wearing ordinary day dress, and begin the day, as any other, with prayers.
Before the monarch departs Buckingham Palace, her official London residence, a member of the House of Commons is delivered up to Buckingham Palace as a ceremonial hostage of the Crown, for the safe return of the monarch, and is well entertained there until the successful conclusion of the ceremony. This is now purely ceremonial, though the MP remains under guard, but originally guaranteed the safety of the Sovereign as he or she entered 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 the Civil War between the monarchy and Parliament.
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.
The Queen arrives from Buckingham Palace at the Palace of Westminster in a horse-drawn coach, entering through the 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 flying 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 Earl Marshal, and by one peer (usually the Leader of the House of Lords) carrying the Cap of Maintenance on a white rod, and another peer (generally a retired senior military officer) carrying the Great Sword of State, all following the Lord Great Chamberlain and his white stick, commonly the practical implement of ceremonial ushers, raised aloft. Once seated 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 Door-keeper 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. In 1642, King Charles I stormed into the House of Commons in an unsuccessful attempt to arrest the Five Members for treason. Since that time, no British monarch has been permitted to enter the House of Commons. On his approach the doors are slammed shut with violence against him, in a show of the refusal by the Commons ever again to be entered by force by the monarch or one of her servants and of its right to debate without the presence of the Queen's Representative. He then strikes forcefully with the end of his ceremonial staff (the Black Rod) three times on the closed doors of the Commons Chamber and is then admitted. At the bar, Black Rod bows to the speaker before proceeding to the dispatch box and announces the command of the monarch for the attendance of the Commons, in the following words:
"Mr (or Madam) Speaker, The Queen commands this honourable House [pauses to bow to both sides of the House] to attend Her Majesty immediately in the House of Peers."
By unofficial tradition, in recent years this has been greeted with a defiant topical comment by republican-leaning 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 followed by The Deputy Prime Minister and the Deputy 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 where they bow to The Queen. 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. They remain standing at the Bar during 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 Government, 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 on bended knee for Her Majesty to read by the Lord Chancellor, who produces the scroll from a satchell-like bag. Traditionally, rather than turning his back on Her Majesty, which might appear disrespectful, The Lord Chancellor walks backwards down the steps of the throne, continuing to face the monarch. Lord Irvine of Lairg, the Lord Chancellor appointed by Prime Minister Tony Blair, sought to break the custom and applied successfully for permission to turn his back on The Queen and walk down the steps forwards, but the next Lord Chancellor Jack Straw continued the former tradition.
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 and formal 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 Queen concludes the speech in saying:
"My Lords and Members of the House of Commons, I pray that the blessing of Almighty God may rest upon your counsels".
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", 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.
Following the speech, The Queen leaves the chamber before the Commons bow again and return to their Chamber.
After the departure of the Queen, 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 ceremony only, and do not make any actual legislative 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. The importance of international relations is also represented through the presence in the Chamber of the Corps Diplomatique.
The Opening of Parliament began out of practical necessity. By the late fourteenth century, the means by which the King gathered his nobles and representatives of the Commons had begun to follow an established pattern. First of all, Peers' names were checked against the list of those who had been summoned, and representatives of the Commons were checked against the sheriffs' election returns. The Peers were robed and sat in the Painted Chamber at Westminster; the Commons were summoned, and stood at the Bar (threshold) of the Chamber. A speech or sermon was then given (usually by the Lord Chancellor) explaining why Parliament had been summoned, after which the Lords and Commons went separately to discuss the business in hand. The monarch normally presided, not only for the Opening but also for the deliberations which followed (unless prevented by illness or other pressing matters).
In the Tudor period, the modern structure of Parliament began to emerge, and the monarch no longer attended during normal proceedings. For this reason, the State Opening took on greater symbolic significance as an occasion for the full constitution of the State (Monarch, Lords and Commons) to be seen. In this period, the parliamentary gathering began to be preceded by an open-air State Procession (which often attracted large numbers of onlookers): the Monarch, together with Household retinue, would proceed in State from whichever royal residence was being used, first to Westminster Abbey for a service (usually a Mass of the Holy Ghost, prior to the Reformation), and thence on foot (accompanied by the Lords Spiritual and Temporal in their robes) to the Palace of Westminster for the Opening itself.
A contemporary illustration of the 1523 State Opening shows a remarkable visual similarity between State Openings of the 16th and 21st centuries. In both cases, the monarch sits on a throne before the Cloth of Estate, crowned and wearing a crimson robe of state; the Cap of Maintenance and Sword of State are borne by peers standing before the monarch on the left and right respectively; the Lord Great Chamberlain stands alongside, bearing his white wand of office. Members of the Royal retinue are arrayed behind the King (top right). In the main body of the Chamber, the Bishops are seated on benches to the King's right wearing their parliamentary robes, and the Lords Temporal are seated on the other benches (among them the Duke of Norfolk, carrying his baton as Earl Marshal of England). The judges (red-robed and coifed) are on the woolsacks in the centre, and behind them are the clerks (with quills and inkpots). At the bottom of the picture members of the House of Commons can be seen at the Bar to the House, with the Speaker in the centre, wearing his black and gold robe of state.
Since that time the ceremonial has evolved, but not dramatically. Mitred Abbots (who are to be seen, black-robed, in the 1523 illustration) were removed from Parliament at the time of the Reformation. In 1679 neither the procession nor the Abbey service took place, due to fears of a Popish Plot; although the procession was subsequently restored, the service in the Abbey was not. The monarch's role in the proceedings changed over time: early on, the monarch would say some introductory words, before calling upon the Lord Chancellor (or Lord Keeper) to address the assembly. James I, however, was accustomed to speak at greater length himself, and sometimes dispensed with the Chancellor's services as spokesman. This varying pattern continued in subsequent reigns (and during the Commonwealth, when Cromwell gave the speech), but from 1679 onwards it became the norm for the monarch alone to speak. Since then, the monarch (if present) has almost invariably given the speech, with the exception of George I (whose command of English was poor) and Victoria (after the death of Prince Albert). A dramatic change was occasioned by the destruction of the old Palace of Westminster by fire in 1834; however, the new palace was designed with the ceremonial of the State Opening very much in mind. The opportunity for members of the public to witness this symbolic demonstration of the constitutional relationship of Queen-in-Parliament increased markedly in 1958 when the entire State Opening of Parliament was filmed for the first time.
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 opens these parliaments and deliver the speech herself while visiting.
In India, the President of India 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 do not in fact open the legislative session, and they are delivered by the chief executive on his or her own behalf.
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