For the State Opening of Parliament, the chamber of the House of Lords is completely reconfigured. The Table is removed, a boxed seating area for the Diplomatic Corps created, and the bar of the House brought forward to create more space for MPs. I have already written a post on Lords of the Blog explaining where certain groups sit. The Diplomatic Corps sit by virtue of seniority. High Court judges, resplendent in wigs, sit on the Woolsack. Behind them, there is a bench for the Justices of the Supreme Court (in their black and gold robes) and a bench for the four senior Clerks (in black robes and wigs). There are also benches for peeresses (the wives of peers and not to be confused with women peers). The rest of the seating is given over to peers. The front bench on the right as you face the throne is reserved for current or former holders of senior offices, such as the Leader of the Opposition, Chairman of Committees, former Lord Chancellors and former Leaders of the House. Baroness Thatcher, as a former Prime Minister, also sat there. The facing front bench is occupied by the Bishops, on this occasion wearing peers’ robes.
What about the rest of us? Basically, it is a case of first come, first served. Members tend to have their preferred slots, but you need to get in early to sit near the front. I am one of the early birds. The first two or three benches in the well of the chamber – the ones facing the throne, behind the bench reserved for the Clerks – fill up about 10.00 o’clock. I am normally on the second or third bench. I noticed this year that after the front few benches had filled up there was a quarter-of-an-hour or more before the remaining benches started to fill.
This year, I had Lord Howell of Guildford and Lord Henley, both former ministers, on my left, and Lord Marlesford on my right. Lord Marlesford did the equivalent of the German tourist leaving the towel on the seat by arriving early and leaving his programme open on his seat before popping out for a couple of minutes.
I am not sure what value is derived from getting a seat towards the front. One can get a clear view of the Queen, but one could probably get an even better view from the side benches. It is the usual case of once you have found a seat you feel comfortable with, you stick with it. (Not that the benches in the centre are that comfortable – there are no backs to them.) It used to be the case if you arrived early, you spent about an hour-and-a-half chatting to your neighbours. Nowadays there are screens and we can see what is going on outside. Previously, you just sat, knowing what was going on outside – the programme gives very precise timings – but without seeing any of it.
Everything normally goes like clockwork. This year, it didn’t in that one of the page boys fainted. He went down with a great thud. The Queen, however, is a great believer in the show going on and didn’t miss a beat. We were also impressed by the fact that the Leader of the House, Lord Hill of Oareford, stood holding the Cap of Maintenance, didn’t flinch either.
The State Opening is the one occasion each year when peers wear their robes. (Some of us own our own, others are hired or obtained by ballot.) Nonetheless, the pictures of State Opening are the ones that will usually be used to illustrate any story about the House. One recent report compounded matters by just showing a picture of the High Court judges on the Woolsack. To be fair, a BBC News Online story about the House did try to get away from the standard picture and instead published a picture of a sitting of the House. Unfortunately, it was a (pre-2009) picture of a judicial sitting – the Law Lords sat delivering judgments.
All this fuels the discussion as to whether we should not wear robes for this grand occasion. There is a separate discussion, given the pressure on space (not least MPs having to squeeze in below the bar of the House), as to whether the ceremony itself should be elsewhere. One could create more space by not allowing, say, the Diplomatic Corps or the peeresses to sit in the chamber. At the moment, though, there does not appear sufficient momentum for any major change. The biggest challenge, anyway, may come if both Houses have to decant the Palace for some years to enable essential building works to be carried out.
And I haven’t even addressed the question of whether we need an annual Queen’s Speech…