The Big Question: What is the Queen's Speech, and does it serve any real purpose?

Why are we asking this now?

Tomorrow morning there will be nose-to-tail traffic queues on the Embankment and other roads near Whitehall, the crowds will be out on the pavement between Buckingham Palace and Parliament and in the public seats inside the House of Lords there will sit ladies dripping with mind-bogglingly expensive jewellery. It is time for the biggest pageantry in the political year, known as the Queen's Speech – or, to give it its proper title, the State Opening of Parliament.

But not everyone is caught up in the excitement of the occasion. Writing in yesterday's Independent, the Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg called on the government to cut out the "glitz and glamour" and get on with the business of governing.



Does this happen every year?

The Queen's Speech is an annual event which marks the opening of the parliamentary year. It nearly always happens in November, or occasionally December, except when there has been a general election, in which case there is a Queen's Speech as soon as the new Parliament assembles. What makes this year's speech unusual is that the leader of a political party should be saying that it is a waste of time and money.



Is Clegg the first person to demand the state opening be called off?

There is often a minority who think the whole pageantry is pointless, though no one since has taken their opposition to it quite as far as Robert Catesby, Guy Fawkes and other Catholics did in 1605, when they smuggled in 36 barrels of gunpowder to blow up the Commons during the state opening. At 10am tomorrow, the Yeomen of the Guard – aka the Beefeaters – will solemnly check out the cellars for gunpowder or other explosive matter, as they do every year, just in case.

When Neil Kinnock was leader of the Labour Party, trying to present a moderate, responsible public image, he was embarrassed by a photograph dating from 1977, showing him sitting with Dennis Skinner in a near empty chamber, boycotting the event. There have been other boycotts by left wing MPs, but what makes Clegg's intervention unusual is that it comes from the leader of the country's third biggest political party.



Isn't this ceremony integral to our history?

Like rather a lot of pageants, this is not as old as it pretends to be. It is true that monarchs have appeared at state openings of Parliament, on and off, at least since 1536, when Henry VIII needed to be sure that parliament was on side in his dispute with the Pope. But in reality this is a 20th century ceremony.

Queen Victoria refused to turn up at state openings for years after her consort, Prince Albert, died, and when eventually she did, she would listen while the Lord Chancellor read the speech. After her death, the popularity of the monarch badly needed reviving, so her son, Edward VII, had the ceremony sexed up into a major tourist attraction. It was in his reign that the throne area in the House of Lords was redesigned so that the royal couple could be on view, sitting side by side.



Didn't Labour do away with some pageantry?

When Tony Blair came to power in 1997, he had no intention of offending the Queen or putting an end to a popular ceremony, but some of the more anachronistic elements were taken out.

The most obvious was that previously the Lord Chancellor would appear dressed in tights, breeches and buckles, and when the Queen had completed the speech he would take it from her and walk backwards down the steps to the throne in order not to turn his back on the Queen. That has not happened since 1997. The length of the Queen's procession through the Lords was also reduced. For instance, the Silver Stick in Waiting is no longer part of the show.



What happens tomorrow?

The Queen and Prince Philip will arrive at the Sovereign's Entrance to the Palace of Westminster at 11.15, to be met by the Lord Great Chamberlain and the Earl Marshal, who will conduct them to the robing room in case – after performing this same ritual for more than 50 years – they have forgotten the way. There they will find the Crown, the Cap of Maintenance and the Sword of State, all of which are transported by horse drawn coach ahead of them and carried ceremoniously through the building just before 11am.

When the Queen is robed, a solemn procession begins, with Blue Mantle Pursuivant and Rouge Dragon Pursuivant leading the way, followed by Arundel Herald Extraordinary and Wales Herald Extraordinary, with Norfolk Herald Extraordinary and Maltravers Herald Extraordinary in the third row.

Then in the middle of the procession, after more heralds, Black Rod, the Garter King of Arms, Jack Straw, in his capacity as Lord High Chancellor, the Lord Great Chamberlain, the Earl Marshal and numerous others, come the Queen and Prince Philip, followed by the pages of honour and other yet more people with strange job titles. One bit of nonsense that has survived 12 years of Labour government is that the Earl Marshal and Lord Great Chamberlain still walk backwards.



When do the MPs join in?

At 11.30am the Queen will be seated on the throne in the House of Lords. She is not allowed in the Commons, so off goes Black Rod to fetch the waiting MPs. As a symbol of Parliament's independence, they first slam the door in his face, and then, after he has banged on the door and been let in, the MPs proceed slowly to the Lords, where they stand in a crush at the far end while the Queen reads out her speech.

The procession will be led by Gordon Brown and David Cameron. Somewhere a few rows back, next to a middle-ranking minister, will be a disgruntled Nick Clegg.



What is Clegg's beef?

Though they call it The Queen's Speech, it is not, of course, the Queen's but rather Gordon Brown's speech. The whole thing is put together by the Prime Minister's office, and the Queen's task is simply to read it out. The speech supposedly sets out the government's legislative programme for the coming year, and will be debated in the Commons for five days, before MPs vote on it.

Clegg's point is that there has to be a general election by June, at the latest. The legislation listed in the speech has no chance of taking effect before then. So, he argues, the speech and the debate that follows is "little more than a rehearsal of the next Labour Party manifesto".



What does Labour say?

Downing Street's reaction is that they can get their legislation passed, if the other parties co-operate. "Nick Clegg is wrong to say it's a waste of everyone's time," Harriet Harman, the Commons leader, said yesterday. "Instead of this pointless political posturing, the Liberal Democrats should back our plans."

Of course, the elephant in the room that Labour is not mentioning is that the Conservatives will probably win the election, so the Queen's Speech that counts will not be the one she reads tomorrow, but the one she reads next June, which will tell us what the Conservatives propose to do in their first year in office.

Should the Queen's speech be abolished?

Yes

*This is an expensive, out-of-date ceremony that contributes little or nothing to public life in Britain



*We should not expect hundreds of legislators to waste time listening to a monarch reading out someone else's speech



*The Government should produce legislation when needed, not give a year's programme in a single day

No

*There should be an occasion when the government lays out future plans and priorities



*It's good for the Prime Minister to be reminded ritually that his power is owed to old constitutional arrangements



*Politics is too often remote from the people, and these old traditions restore people's sense of belonging

a.mcsmith@independent.co.uk

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