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.