UK Politics

Queen's Speech: Plenty of pomp in dressed-down ceremony

The state opening of Parliament Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The Cap of Maintenance and the Sword of State precede the Queen into the House of Lords chamber

It may have been billed as a less ornate affair than usual, but even a dressed-down State Opening of Parliament is hard to mistake for a casual do.

The twinkling of the tiaras and clip-clop of horses' hooves were gone, as the Queen swapped her traditional horse-drawn carriage for a Bentley.

But with the glittering gold throne and bejewelled crown sitting on a velvet cushion, there was still more than enough pomp to go round.

Image caption The Queen normally arrives by horse-drawn carriage
Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption This time she travelled the short journey to Parliament by Bentley

The day begins in the gentle drizzle outside Parliament, as patient police officers redirect irate commuters around the cordoned-off streets, while sleek BMWs and Jaguars with personalised number plates and national flags affixed to the bonnets transport diplomats to the building.

The foreign dignitaries pack out their small section of the House of Lords - a contrast to the ample elbow room available to peers on the rest of the red benches.

Perhaps the relatively sparse attendance is not surprising - it is, after all, only two months since the last Queen's Speech.

On that occasion, the Queen read out the list of her government's priorities - but it was far from clear if any of the proposed laws would be passed by such a divided Parliament.

Things are very different now. After last Thursday's general election, the government has a healthy majority of 80 and is likely to have no trouble getting its policies into law.

Image copyright PA Media
Image caption The Queen is accompanied by her son Prince Charles, who sits on an imperceptibly smaller throne

The snap general election meant less time to prepare for the ceremony and, therefore, certain elements were dropped - the Queen wore a day dress instead of sparkly court dress and tiara.

The 93-year-old monarch no longer wears the heavy, jewel-encrusted Imperial State Crown for state openings, describing it in a documentary last year as "unwieldy".

She also arrived by car rather than horse and carriage - a sort of Cinderella in reverse.

Despite these changes, the event, which can be traced back to the 16th Century and marks the formal start of the Parliamentary year, is still governed by tradition, and there is certainly nothing casual about the House of Lords chamber.

Stained glass windows line the walls, ancient coats of arms hang below the balcony, while the golden throne wouldn't look out of place in a fairy tale castle or a Donald Trump hotel.

The bright crimson robes trimmed with snow white ermine, worn by members of the House of Lords, gives the whole place a Christmassy feel, like a Santa Claus convention - appropriate for a rare December Queen's Speech.

Image copyright AFP/ Getty Images
Image caption Watching the speech from the gloom of the upper gallery of the House of Lords

The grandeur of the lower part of the Lords chamber distracts from the comparatively drab upper half, where the dark statues of those lords who signed the Magna Carta, hands resting on their swords, are just about visible through the gloom.

For the Queen, it must be a slightly strange experience to read out a speech setting out your government's priorities beneath the stern gaze of those men who demanded the monarch of the day - King John - share more of his powers with them.

Nevertheless, Her Majesty is treated with absolute reverence as she enters the chamber. The audience rises and only sits down again when the Queen grants permission.

There is total silence as she sits awaiting the arrival of the MPs. A sign outside the Strangers' Gallery - "all demonstrations are out of order and will be treated accordingly" - offers an ominously vague warning to would-be hecklers.

Image caption Black Rod Sarah Clarke, Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle and Serjeant at Arms Ugbana Oyet

As the elected politicians - from both the victorious party and those that were defeated - arrive in the chamber, the Queen begins her eponymous speech.

After weeks of hearing politicians passionately repeat their election pledges in the hurly burly of the campaign trail, it feels strange to hear those same phrases filtered through the clipped, neutral tones of the monarch to a solemn, respectful audience.

She concludes her speech, picks up her black handbag and heads for the exit.

And with that Parliament is officially opened, the tricky business of getting to power is over, the even-trickier business of governing begins.

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