A (Qualified) Defence of the Queen’s Speech

Chris Bryant, MP for the Rhondda and former minister, has in the Independent described the Queen’s Speech as ‘an ossified ceremony that is nothing more than a big lie’. An interesting viewpoint, but ultimately based on a outdated idea of what the monarchy represents. Of course, ceremony never quite reflects reality. What it is meant to do is reflect a greater underlying truth.

That said, there are changes that should be made so that the greater truth of our nation’s democracy shines through.

Traditionally, the Queen’s Speech showed the independence of the House of Commons from the Queen’s government which mainly sat in the House of Lords back in the day. Of course, things have now changed. The sovereign has no executive power; now, she agrees on behalf of the nation to what the government requests. There is a case to restrict certain prerogative powers, but that’s an entirely different argument for another day. The Commons is the home of the Queen’s government now, and it is the House of Lords that asserts its independence from government.

Our head of state has evolved. The Queen as the Head of State once meant much more; with the advent of constitutional monarchy her greater role is as Head of Nation, representing all citizens in a way divisive and partisan politicians cannot.

Viewed in this way, the ceremonial takes on a different hue:

The embodiment of the nation annually summons the various arms of government, parliament and the state, as well as foreign ambassadors. Respecting the pre-eminent role of parliament in national life, this takes place at the State Opening of Parliament as the embodiment of the Nation declares that Parliament needs to begin work. The government (represented here by the Lord Chancellor) then gives the representative of the nation a speech summarising their plans for the coming year.

So far so good. But what should change? The embodiment of the nation should simultaneously inform and be informed of the plans. Even now, it is clear that she is not part of the government (she clearly isn’t coming up with this stuff) but we should emphasise this. Before she is given the speech she should say something like:

My Lords and Members of the House of Commons, I am opening this parliament so that my government may be scrutinised by you all. I shall now read out the agenda that my government has determined for itself.

Once she has finished this speech she should give the speech back to the Lord Chancellor and then on behalf of the nation she should then say something along these lines:

My Lords and Members of the House of Commons, I request that you consider and amend my government’s legislative proposals as necessary, and introduce and do the same to your own ideas as you see fit.

I request that you scrutinise my government’s plans and hold them to account for their actions up to and including withdrawing confidence from my government if they so deserve it.

My Lords and Members of the House of Commons, I pray that the blessing of Almighty God may rest upon your counsels.

While Chris Bryant seems to draw a link between having a Queen’s Speech and the deluge of legislation, there’s no evidential link I can find between the two. Some Commonwealth countries abolished the annual Speech from the Throne only to increase the volume of legislation (in bills or pages)! He is right that the Queen’s Speech should talk more about non-legislative plans; the writing of the speech seems to be stuck in the days when parliament was more about legislating than about holding government to account for day-to-day activities.

Chris Bryant also notes a key point: the symbolism of the House of Lords. The Lords is a hybrid institution. As described by Lord (Peter) Hennessy, it is a mixture of blood, piety, politics and meritocracy. In the days of yore, it represented the governing pre-eminence of the nobility. Today, the nobility is almost gone and the largest single group in the House of Lords is the ex-politician. In symbolic terms, the Lords portrays itself as a chamber of experience and expertise; the Greece to the Commons’ Rome.

It has a ring of truth but isn’t the whole story. To justify the symbolic link there, you would need the stink of patronage to go. The composition would need to be tightened up. I favour the Steel bill’s vision for the House of Lords (plus getting rid of the Bishops, and maybe for term not life) which amount to a House with just the meritocracy part of Hennessy’s description. I believe that would be a good reflection of the public’s long-standing “anti-politics”* mood and a good example of the government’s commitment (ahem) to evidence-based policy.

But should MPs get a seat, or get to watch the whole ceremony? I’m not convinced. The symbolism of politicians being subordinate to the embodiment of the nation is potent and MPs shouldn’t forget that. I’m sorry to hear that some elected politicians aren’t happy that they’ve not got comfy seats reserved, but to be honest the ceremony’s not for their benefit.

The House of Commons has primacy, it’s true, but this is primacy in governance and laws. Its members still swear allegiance to the embodiment of the state and more importantly the nation and for good reason. Politics is not supreme in this country; our highest office and most important official is entirely out of the hands of partisan politics. Long may that be so.

*I hate that phrase, but I haven’t yet found one to replace it. Suggestions welcome.

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