Reforming State Opening?

The State Opening of Parliament takes place on Tuesday 25 May.  It will follow a procedure that is long established.  The practice of the ceremony taking place in the House of Lords was established in 1536.  The practice of summoning members of the Commons to join the monarch and peers is of even longer standing. 

The chamber of the Lords is reconfigured for the ceremony, with seating down the centre, between the normal benches, for peers and with sections created for members of the Diplomatic Corps and for the wives of peers.  The Bar of the House is also brought forward to create more space for MPs when summoned to attend.

Although more space is created for MPs, it is not adequate for all MPs and it can become rather cramped.  Quite understandably, some MPs have complained and some parliamentarians have suggested that the ceremony might instead take place in the more spacious, and more historic, Westminster Hall.  The Hall is used on occasion for an address by the sovereign to both Houses, so why not employ it for State Opening?

As with so many issues, what appears to be a new question turns to be really an old one.  The rush by MPs to get to the Lords at the 1901 State Opening (the first to be opened by Edward VII) was not only unseemly but somewhat dangerous – one MP said he had been knocked to the ground, another claimed to have been injured in the rush.  A joint committee was appointed to consider reform, but recommended against moving the ceremony to Westminster Hall.  The Clerk of the Parliaments reached a similar conclusion in a memorandum drawn up in 1972.

The arguments against moving the ceremony rest not only on tradition but also practical grounds.  The House of Lords is designed for State Opening and Westminster Hall is not.  The Hall is cavernous, cold in autumn and winter, and would require substantial preparatory work each year in order to be used for State Opening.  Not only would it be more expensive than the present ceremony, it would also create difficulty for the monarch.  Given that the sovereign would need to use the existing Robing Room, the walk from there to Westminster Hall would be lengthy, circuitous and rather demanding, given the weight of the crown. 

My own view is that one can have reform without needing to move the ceremony from the chamber of the Lords.  Given that State Opening is the one occasion when Parliament, in legal terms (that is, the Queen-in-Parliament), meets, why do we need the Diplomatic Corps and peers’ wives in the chamber?  If they were moved to the Galleries, we could bring forward the Bar of the House to create far more space for MPs, or allow MPs into the well of the House, removing the current cause of complaint.  Even this change will frighten traditionalists, but it strikes me as the sensible way forward – that is, so long as we have a State Opening and a House of Lords, which I hope will be a very long time.

About Lord Norton

Professor of Government at Hull University, and Member of the House of Lords
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27 Responses to Reforming State Opening?

  1. Frank W. Summers III says:

    Lord Norton,

    I see that you are quite thin. However, if all the more prtly members of both houses and other officials were put on a severe diet starting now there would be more space. And as for precedent haven’t some great assemblies been knwon as diets?
    There also seems to be a lot of interest in incorporating American elements. I kid you not if I say American football is one of our best and my favorite rituals. Perhaps hiring two of our referees from the SEC or NFL and equipping key persons with full pads would also make things safer.

    • Lord Norton says:

      Frank W. Summers III: Now that you mention it, we don’t have that many peers carrying undue weight. I think the Speaker of the Commons would not be best pleased at the suggestion that there needs to be any additional referees. In the Lords, we are collectively the referee.

      • Frank W. Summers III says:

        I defer to your Lordship’s insights on these subjects. Clearly the plan would not do…

  2. Croft says:

    A practical solution with only one problem: peers’ wives! Judging by the scramble for seats/tickets what would they say. Perhaps your fellow peers would agree to the change if you were to tell their wives the news. Eyjafjallajökull’s explosive force might look small compared to the result. In the interests of openness can we have parliament tv film the event 😀

    • The Duke of Waltham says:

      Great point! As I quote below, it seems that many peers have found it preferable to maintain their domestic peace rather than attend the State Opening in person.

    • Lord Norton says:

      Croft: Probably the same reaction as I am likely to get to my suggestion that in future the only prefix that should be accorded the spouse of a peer is that of ‘The hon’ (if they are accorded a prefix at all), thus ensuring equality between husbands (who presently have no prefix), civil partners (ditto) and wives (who presently become Ladies).

      • The Duke of Waltham says:

        Ouch. I think I am at a safe distance, but I might head towards Australia for a while just to be sure…

  3. The Duke of Waltham says:

    I had noticed that the table was removed and that extra seating was added, but I had no idea that the Bar was physically moved forward to give more space to the MPs. The problem of space there has long been acute, right from the beginning. Joseph Hume, ever vigilant to the deficiencies of the New Houses of Parliament, made a speech in the Commons (first link below) about the “disgraceful” scene that took place in the 1851 State Opening of Parliament (though I hasten to add that this was far from unprecedented). The matter was taken up by the House later in the year (second link), where methods of selecting who would attend the Queen in the Lords were discussed.

    Regarding the number of ladies, things used to be much worse. I quote from “The Staging of Ceremonies in the House of Lords” by Henry S. Cobb: “A conspicuous feature of State Openings in the time of Queen Victoria, as in the time of her two predecessors, was the presence of a large number of ladies seated in the Lords Chamber, the peeresses in full state robes. It was said that, early in the nineteenth century, ‘the number of ladies even exceeded that of peers, usually amounting to 200 or 300, stationing themselves along the side galleries and on the rows of benches on either side of the floor, excepting only the government front bench’. In 1852, The Times remarked that ‘one might suppose that a House of Peeresses had been added to the institutions of the country, and the half-hundred elderly gentlemen in robes of scarlet and ermine who occupied the front bench sat as assessors to a female Parliament’. […] Pictures of the State Opening by Alexander Blaikley in 1845 and by Joseph Nash in the 1850s show the House almost exclusively occupied by ladies at State Openings of that time, peers having given up their customary places in the Lords Chamber to their wives daughters and other ladies.”

    All this was ended by Prince Albert’s death in 1866, whereupon Queen Victoria went into mourning, abandoning the ceremonial of which the Palace was in many ways designed to be the stage. It was revived by Edward VII in 1901, who wished to rejuvenate the symbolic role of the monarchy which Victoria’s long seclusion had undermined. Even before his first State Opening, he had been advised “that Westminster Hall would better accommodate the numerous Members intent on hearing the speech from the throne. The king, however, insisted that the ceremony take place in the Lords Chamber in time-honoured fashion.” He did make one change: he had a second throne made for Queen Alexandra, whereas the Prince Consort had previously used a Chair of State to the left and below his beloved wife. It could be said that this wasn’t part of the original specifications because of Albert’s uncertain status in terms of precedence; the new throne, however, did detract from the original balance of the scheme.

    But I digress. After the 1901 hassle, the joint committee mentioned by Your Lordship recommended the creation of more seating room in the middle of the Lords Chamber, the reservation of seats for MPs in the galleries, and the creation of seating in the Royal Gallery for some of the peeresses, as well as the wives of MPs. This resolved, for the most part, the problems and I believe the situation has changed little since then.

    So I ask: If MPs are still given seats in the galleries, then why move more peeresses and diplomats up and have them occupy some of those seats? Or have things changed? I also wonder about the extent to which the Bar can be moved into the House. If it can be done, it might be a good idea, but care would have to be taken not to have it intrude too much between the seats.

    I’d certainly consider it inappropriate to have MPs sit with the Lords in the House proper. In State Openings so far, the Queen, Lords and MPs have been separate; although they are in the same room for the only time of the year, their constitutional roles are still reflected in the arrangements of the ceremony. Besides, I doubt that the visual effect would be agreeable; allow lounge-suit-wearing MPs mix with robed peers and ladies in tiaras? The television audiences might cringe. So, even though such a measure would be preferable to moving the State Opening out of the Lords Chamber (a thoroughly unacceptable option for all sorts of practical and symbolic reasons), I find it far from satisfactory.

    • The Duke of Waltham says:

      Addendum: I spoke of the visual effect of MPs sitting on the Lords benches, but I neglected to mention the psychological implications of the current arrangements. I am sure that there are many who just love seeing the politicians (including the Prime Minister) having to stand by the door to hear the crowned and bejewelled Queen read the speech seated on a magnificent throne. It may not be her own speech, but the whole setting puts the politicians in their proper place—even if only once a year. Can we really give that up?

    • Lord Norton says:

      The Duke of Waltham: The galleries are used for the more junior members of the Diplomatic Corps (they are seated by seniority, so the more senior get to sit in the chamber) and for distinguished guests.

  4. FinnishCowl says:

    I cannot claim to know the particulars of the logistics or layouts of the spaces available for the State Opening. However, I was wondering if it might be conceivable to move either members of the Diplomatic Corps or peers wives to the Royal Gallery (or maybe even squeeze a few into the Princes’ Chamber). I do not know who currently ends up there, but it might make more sense (and they get a closer view of the procession).

    • The Duke of Waltham says:

      I don’t know exactly who goes into the Royal Gallery right now, but I take your point about peeresses. However, I don’t think it would be appropriate to move the diplomats outside the Chamber; it might be considered an affront, and, in any case, I suspect they are interested in the political aspect of the event at least as much as in the ceremonial one.

      With regards to the Prince’s Chamber, there is no room for spectators there. In fact, the chamber was designed with the exact opposite purpose: to give the monarch a small measure of privacy between the public procession in the Royal Gallery and the even more public speech in the Lords Chamber. That is not to say there are no people in the Prince’s Chamber at State Openings: the room is lined with members of, unless I am mistaken, the Honourable Corps of Gentlemen at Arms.

      • Lord Norton says:

        FinnishCowl: As the DoW says, there is no room for anyone else in the Prince’s Chamber, given the presence of the Gentlemen at Arms. The Royal Gallery would be a possibility, but I suspect they may prefer to be in the Galleries.

  5. baronessmurphy says:

    Since women peers’ spouses and partners are not allowed to sit in the chamber for State Opening but are banished to the peeresses’ gallery, I’m all in favour of ejecting the Tiaras upstairs and letting some MPs in instead (the well behaved ones please). Don’t think I can face all that waiting around again so soon after the last though….I’ll be sitting this one out.

  6. Lord Norton says:

    FinnishCowl: A peer can apply for a ticket for a family member or guest in the Royal Gallery. One possibility would certainly be to move members of the Diplomatic Corps and wives there. They would, as you say, get to see the procession. It is a question of swings and roundabouts. Those of us in the chamber don’t get to see anything of the procession, except on television screens (a recent innovation), whereas those in the Royal Gallery see the procession but miss being present in person for the Queen’s Speech. As the speech sometimes doesn’t take that much longer to read than it does to process from one end of the Royal Gallery to the other, it is not clear who gets the better deal.

  7. Carl.H says:

    The answer of course is quite elementary.

    Being as politicians are, in the publics view, worth far less than previously. Rather than the Queen take just one hostage in Buckingham Palace, allow for inflation and the fact MP`s have us at a record deficit and just allow any new Prime Minister to attend. The rest to remain hostage at Her Majesty`s Pleasure

    • The Duke of Waltham says:

      The Prime Minister and Mr Speaker (hoping that this time he’ll bother to dress up for the occasion). For the rest, there’s always the television… 😛

    • Lord Norton says:

      Carl.H and the DoW: There is the interesting point of why some MPs attend and others don’t.

      • The Duke of Waltham says:

        I’d suspect that at least some of the absentees would be against the monarchy, the House of Lords, or both.

  8. Jonathan says:

    How about a really modern solution: provide a video link from the Lords to the Commons chamber so that most MPs can sit in there to hear the speech.

    We’ve discussed titles (it’s not really a prefix) for peers wives before, so you know I’m not in favour of your suggestion. It opens a can of worms. What would the wife of an “Hon” then be known as? How about wives of knights? Or the wife of a duke’s son? And then, shouldn’t all women stop using their husbands’ names at all?

    • The Duke of Waltham says:

      I don’t think hauling a large screen into the Commons Chamber would work well, Jonathan. However, this solution might be more effective if implemented a little differently: by fitting up a few large committee rooms. They are out of the way, so this would not interfere with the ceremony.

      Regarding titles, I think you have a point. The entire system of titles is based on one basic premise: they can be claimed through husbands and fathers but not through mothers and wives (at least in most cases). It is an extensive and complex system shaped (like most things in this area) through centuries of precedent, and a change like the one suggested by Lord Norton would have far-reaching consequences. I am not arguing against it; I am simply saying that it would have to be very well thought-out.

      Reliable information on titles and forms of address can be found in the Debrett’s website.

    • FinnishCowl says:

      Concerning TV monitors, I am not sure that would please the MPs. Do they honestly want to simply hear the speech? Or do they try to cram into the Lords’ Chamber because they actually want to take part, in their own small way, in the ceremony? I think it is more the latter, although perhaps Lord Norton could offer some insight. If they only cared about the contents of the speech, they could always just read it (for, as the Speaker notes every time, copies are available in the Vote Office). In the time it takes for the mover and the seconder of the Humble Address to finish speaking, anyone could have read it.

      • Lord Norton says:

        Finnish Cowl: I agree. I suspect the ceremony attracts as much as, if not more so than, the content of the speech. As you say, an MP could otherwise watch it on screen or collect a printed copy from the Vote Office.

    • Lord Norton says:

      Jonathan: The wives of ‘Hons’ would remain as they are. The wives of knights would be ‘Hons’. It would apply to the partners of all future peers and knights, but not to those already awarded, so it would not affect hereditary titles.

  9. franksummers3ba says:

    Person Norton,
    President Obama address largely every individual by their first name. At least in this country in public. While I still have my nieces and nephews address me as “Uncle ____ ” (the blank being a nickname) I have also told them that possibly in America when they army age we will not use names, honorifics of any kind or titles such as Mom and Dad. Rather we will call everyone “person” and rely on inflection, context, description and gestures for specificity.
    Perhaps you lot can lead us — let this be the Parliament where the QS includes a proposal to change the name of your Public Entity to the United Persondom, or UP.

    This Person

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