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18 June 2001

Whose speech is it anyway?

Meghnad Desai proposes a people's version of the state opening of parliament

By Meghnad Desai

In a few days, the monarch will ride in full pageantry to the Palace of Westminster for the state opening of parliament. There, the primacy of the House of Commons will be reversed. The Queen will go to the House of Lords – where the assembled peers will all be robed in ermine – and be received by various people outrageously dressed and even more absurdly titled. The government chief whip in the Lords, Lord Carter, will once more be named the Captain of the Honourable Corps of the Gentlemen-at-Arms. The Marquess of Cholmondeley and the Duke of Norfolk will move centre stage. The Lord Privy Seal (alias Lord Williams of Mostyn, Leader of the House of Lords) and the President of the Council (alias Robin Cook, Leader of the House of Commons) will line up with the Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine, to greet Her Majesty.

The Queen will ask Black Rod to summon the Commons. Thus the supremacy of the upper chamber is asserted and the parliament opened not in the place where its major business is done, or where the people’s representatives normally sit, but in the other place. The Commons will arrive, by tradition, reluctantly and noisily. The Queen will then read out the speech written for her by the Prime Minister, who will be standing unhappily at the bar of the House, looking for all the world like a visitor.

It all lasts only a few minutes, and is good fun for the tourist trade. But we cannot go on pretending that the monarch writes the speech or that the House of Commons is merely peripheral to the state opening of parliament. This ritual, harmless as it may be, is a denial of reality.

And that reveals a fundamental problem in our polity. For all the constitutional changes of Labour’s first term – devolution, the Human Rights Act, a half-reform of the House of Lords – the system still looks much the same: old and musty, riddled with privilege and fuddy-duddies. Even the “people’s peers” could be laughed off as more of the toffs joining their friends.

A change to the state opening of parliament would transform this image and symbolise an irrevocable break with the past. Do away with all the flummery of the monarch coming in to the Lords and addressing the peers and their partners, with the commoners kept standing.

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There should still be a ceremony. The Queen can still come in her full regalia; anyone else who has a ceremonial role (such as the Marquess of Cholmondeley and the Duke of Norfolk) can dress up. But the people who hold power as a result of the people’s votes – directly in the case of the Commons, and indirectly in the case of the life peers – should dress as they do every day. I don’t put on ermine to go to the House of Lords every day, and nor does Lord Carter or Lord Williams. At the state opening, we should all, Lords and Commons, appear in our ordinary clothes.

The ceremony should be held in Westminster Hall, which is the oldest structure in the Palace of Westminster, and which is big enough to seat all the members of both Houses, plus any spouses and other invited guests, such as members of the diplomatic corps. The Queen should first relate her travel plans, as she does now, and then summon the Prime Minister to give the speech setting out the government’s legislative programme. In other words, the Prime Minister, as the First Lord of the Treasury, should be the principal speaker.

This way, the political reality of power in 21st-century Britain will catch up with the ritual. It can still be made to look a splendid and ceremonial occasion. Westminster Hall is much more spectacular than the House of Lords, and the throne could be moved there with much pomp and circumstance. But away with the excessive bowing and scraping. Away with the ermine robes, the pursuivant this and the noble that. Away with the awkward, if no longer backward, walk of the Lord Chancellor as he gives and receives the speech from the Queen. The Queen does not have to pretend that it is her speech. She just has to call her Prime Minister to tell the world what he intends to do in her name. What could be simpler and more radical?

Meghnad Desai has been a Labour life peer since 1991