A beginner’s guide to the Queen’s speech

The parliamentary year is punctuated by a number of big set pieces, traditional events that have taken place in one form or another for hundreds of years. The grandest of them all, and my personal favourite, is the state opening of parliament, which takes place on Wednesday 4 June this year.

The state opening is British pageantry at its finest (and a chance for me to indulge my personal partiality for Prince Philip). Many of the traditions date back to the 1600s, when parliament and the Crown had a rather more tense relationship. The symbolism of the event is important and part of our unwritten constitution.

The Queen’s speech, written by the government, lists the proposed legislation for the forthcoming parliamentary year. While an important signal of the government’s priorities, not all of the bills announced will become law and other bills, not included in the speech, will make it into the statute book.

The legislative programme usually thins as parliament approaches a general election. With accusations of a “zombie” parliament from across the parties, expect Labour to attack the government further for this.

In previous parliaments, there was little advance warning of when an election would be held making it difficult to plan out legislative time. This led to a period known as wash-up, a few days after an election is announced to rush through remaining bills, often in an edited form, to stop them being lost. The Fixed-Term Parliament Act has changed all that, with the election date known years in advance.

Pub quiz trivia

Here are nine facts about the state opening that you may not know:

  1. It is tradition that an MP is held hostage at Buckingham Palace during the speech to guarantee the safe return of the monarch. The honour usually goes to the Vice-Chamberlain of the Royal Household, a position currently held by Desmond Swayne MP.
  2. The Yeomen of the Guard still search parliament’s cellars before the opening, a practice that began after the gunpowder plot in 1605.
  3. The door to the Commons is ceremonially slammed in the face of Black Rod, the Queen’s representative, in a historical nod to the supremacy of parliament. Black Rod then knocks on the door three times.
  4. MPs are summoned to the Lords’ Chamber for the speech, chatting in pairs as they wander across. It is usual that the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition walk together, which tends to be less jovial.
  5. A tradition that dates back almost to the time of Charles I is the heckling by republican Dennis Skinner MP as the Commons moves into the Lords’ chamber.
  6. The speech is presented to the Queen by the Lord Chancellor on bended knee, who then walks backwards down the steps to avoid turning their back on the Queen. Ken Clarke flouted this convention in 2012, but at 71-years-old it was probably for the best.
  7. Until recently the speech was written on vellum. The ink took three days to dry, ruling out any last minute changes.
  8. Queen Elizabeth II has only missed two state openings, once in 1959 when pregnant with Prince Andrew and again in 1963 when pregnant with Prince Edward.Prince Philip
  9. The Queen wears two different crowns for different parts of the ceremony. She arrives and leaves in the George IV state diadem, which has 1,333 diamonds and 169 pearls, but changes into the grander imperial state crown for the speech. It has 2,868 diamonds, 273 pearls, as well as sapphires, emerald and rubies. Prince Philip is usually more modestly dressed in his Royal Navy uniform.

And finally, if you’re interested in what’s going on in parliament and want to hear from like-minded others, we have a network for public affairs professionals in the voluntary sector.

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Charlotte was our senior external relations officer and public affairs consultant. She has left NCVO

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