The Big Question: Why does the Queen open Parliament and deliver the Government's speech?

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Indy Politics

Why are we asking this now?

Today, one of the oldest, best known and most colourful British ceremonies will be re-enacted, when the Queen makes her annual journey to Parliament for the event known as the Queen's Speech - or, to give it its proper title, the State Opening of Parliament. This happens every year, in October or November, and immediately after each general election. The constitutional fiction behind it is that Parliament dissolves when the parliamentary year is over, and no one but the monarch can summon it to start another year. Neither the Commons nor the Lords can conduct any business until the Queen has read her speech.

Does this speech have to be made by the Queen?

She does not write it, and there is no constitutional requirement for her to deliver it. In reality, it is Tony Blair's speech, because the Prime Minister controls its content, and the speech could very well be delivered by his old flatmate Lord Falconer, the Lord Chancellor. Queen Victoria refused to come to the State Opening for years after the death of her consort, Prince Albert, in 1861. Even when she started turning up again, she and her children and their spouses would sit at the front listening while the Lord Chancellor read the speech.

Is it an anachronism?

Let the facts speak for themselves. Before the Queen sets out from Buckingham Palace, a government whip arrives there to be the royal household's "hostage" for the day, in case a hostile parliament attempts to take the Queen prisoner. Then a coach sets out, carrying the royal regalia to the House of Lords. The Queen follows in another coach. At the House of Lords she is met by the two senior hereditary peers, the Earl Marshall and the Lord Great Chamberlain, who show her to the Robing Room, in case she has forgotten the way after doing this for 54 years. To avoid showing disrespect by turning their backs on her, the aged peers walk backwards.

While the Queen is donning the Imperial State Crown and parliamentary robe, with its train that drags several feet behind her, one group of retainers, including the Maltravers Herald Extraordinary and the Bluemantle Pursuivant, go ahead through the Royal Gallery, carrying the symbols of Sovereign power, the Great Sword of State and the Cap of Maintenance. She then proceeds slowly along the same route, accompanied by the Lord Privy Seal, the Lord President, the Lord Chancellor, the Keeper of the Privy Purse, the Gold Stick in Waiting and others, all dressed in their finery. Earlier, the Yeomen of the Guard, or Beefeaters, search the cellars beneath Parliament to check that Guy Fawkes has not stashed any more barrels of gunpowder.

An anachronism? Surely not.

Has this ceremony changed much since it began?

Its origins can be traced back to 1536, soon after Henry VIII's breach with the Pope, but it became a very different event after the Cromwell period, because it had to symbolise the dignity of the monarch, and the independence of the Commons.

Black Rod is dispatched from the Lords to summon the MPs, but the door of the Commons is symbolically shut in his face. He must knock three times before he is allowed in to relay the monarch's summons. In 1998, a year after Labour came to power, the size of the Queen's procession was reduced. Out went the heads of the armed services, a lady in waiting, the Crown Equerry and the Silver Stick in Waiting. The incoming Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine, not only dispensed with his tights, breeches and buckles, but it was agreed that having handed the Queen her speech, he could turn his back on her instead of walking backwards down the steps from the throne.

So why does the Queen do it?

After Victoria died, her son Edward VII needed to revive the flagging popularity of the monarchy. Standards were slipping at the State Opening. Queen Victoria had had occasion to complain that people were turning up inappropriately dressed and bringing their children. One newspaper complained about the rowdy, disrespectful behaviour of MPs, who dawdled noisily in the corridors between the two houses, making the old Queen wait. So Edward beefed up the fuss and ceremony. He had the throne area redesigned, replacing the single throne with two large thrones, side by side, so that the royal couple could be seen together.

The Queen now makes her way in an open carriage from Buckingham Palace along the Mall, turning right into Horse Guards then left across the parade ground, to emerge through Horse Guards Arch, and along Whitehall to the House of Lords. The size of the cheering crowds who line the route suggests that there is a public appetite for all this nonsense, not least among foreign sightseers. It is good for the monarchy, and good for the tourist trade.

What is the Speech about?

The speech usually opens with a brief preamble about what the Government - or "my government" as the Queen calls it - has done over the previous year. But its main point is to list the bills that the government proposes to introduce over12 months. Only the sketchiest details are actually announced by the Queen, along the lines of "my government will introduce new measures to improve law and order".

The details are in documents and press releases put out by the various government departments during the day.

Generally, barring political accidents, every bill mentioned in the speech will get on to the statute book eventually. Most will be law within 12 months. But the converse does not follow; there is nothing to prevent the Government from bringing other bills in during the year that did not feature in the speech.

Is there any point?

This year, as it happens, the whole ritual is pretty meaningless because Tony Blair will be introducing his plan for the coming year when everyone knows he will not be in office to see it to completion. But in most years, there is something to be said for the Government having to announce the outline of a year's legislative programme. It gives ministers a chance to bid for precious parliamentary time and allows the Prime Minister to sort out priorities.

Afterwards, the House of Commons has six full working days when it dispenses with normal business to devote its time to free-ranging debates on what MPs call "the Gracious Speech" - giving Opposition leaders and backbench MPs a rare opportunity to talk about the generality of government policy.

But there is no rational argument for involving the Queen in any of this, except that it is tradition and it gives some people harmless pleasure.

Should the Queen's Speech be abolished?

Yes...

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

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

* The Government does not need to announce a year's programme in one day, but should produce legislation when needed

No...

* There should be an occasion when the government has to lay out future plans and priorities

* It is good for the Prime Minister to be ritually reminded that he owes his power to very old constitutional arrangements

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

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