The symbolism of all the ceremonial when the Queen “opens” Parliament.

Queen Elizabeth II of Great Britain “opened” Parliament today with the traditional ceremony of being driven through the streets of London in a carriage before arriving at the Houses of Parliament to a military band’s rousing performance of her song: ‘God Save The Queen.’ It must be nice having people play your own special song whenever you go out in public.

She was in her ordinary day wear,  just the usual diamonds and pearls, and she looked, well, sparkling. She carried off the waving from the carriage bit with her usual panache. She was good too climbing in and out of the carriage and doing the stairs into the Houses of Parliament where she was ceremonially ushered into a “robing room” to put on her truly royal regalia including that gigantic crown which gives me a headache just looking it at.  She looked a bit more weighed down than usual with that thing on her head but she is 87 and, anyway, weight-bearing in old age is good for your bones.

People, mostly, like to see the Queen doing her bit of ceremonial. We know it’s mostly just getting into vehicles, walking up and down stairs and walking along lines of people in their Sunday best clothes but she does it very well and there are usually lots of soldiers in colourful uniforms and some nice horses on their best behaviour and if you like fanfares, there are usually a few of those too. Nice no nonsense pieces, fanfares. Short and to the point. Soldiers look best standing in rows in their ceremonial uniforms too and the Queen knows just what to do on these occasions.

This morning, all of that went off jolly well. Hurrah! For those of you who don’t know the finer points of the Ceremonial Opening of Parliament, it is all to do with symbolism. The Queen is the symbolic head of state, she comes to parliament, sits on a throne in the House of Lords, and requests that the elected members of the House of Commons come to hear her read words written (or approved) by the current Prime Minister which she reads from a throne in the non-elected “upper house,” the House of Lords. The door of the Commons is ceremonially slammed shut in the face of the Queen’s messenger, known as Black Rod, who then has to knock three times with his mace before he is allowed into the chamber with the Queen’s invitation. So far, they’ve always agreed to go with him back to hear her read the Queen’s speech. Political opponents walk side by side down the corridor separating the two chambers and we are meant to recognise our constitutional and democratic monarchy personified.

We are meant to see this as a symbol of how power really belongs with us the people who elect our MPs to do our wishes and who, ultimately, exert their power over the monarch who is represented by the crown. I like the symbolism but wish we’d use it more often to really make sure that our politicians do our bidding. Men in suits and women in sensible “costumes”  represent us, the nation, on their way into the upper chamber to see all those people dressed up in robes.

The Queen is waiting for them on her throne in a chamber filled with grandees made up of old politicians, retired or voted out of the House of Commons, some “mature” worthies and celebrities from institutions like the National Health Service, the arts and sciences or the BBC, a dozen or so token representatives of minorities, some financial benefactors to the main political parties, some distinguished former captains of industry who have, so far, escaped jail sentences, a handful of bishops from the dwindling power that is the Church of England and a few remaining hereditary peers of the realm. Some of them are even very nice people but they don’t represent us in the spirit of the previous symbolism. They represent the establishment that chose them and, mostly, would do almost anything to avoid the wishes of the people to ever get into law even if they actually knew what the wishes of the people were.

Anyway, they all gather together and we, if we have the time, can watch it all on TV.  The colour and pageantry, those fanfares, horses and diamonds and all those people dressed up in red and gold. For a moment, we focus our attention on an old lady weighed down by a very heavy crown – the symbol of our nation. She is reading the words of an incompetent government, part good intentions and part bullshit and she knows it – she’s done it sixty times before.

It’s not her fault, quite the opposite, in fact. It’s not as easy as it looks being the personification of a nation. ‘Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown’ Shakespeare said but, for all the nonsense on display today, I still remember that wise Hungarian who told me off for scoffing. He said the British were lucky to have the “little woman in her funny hats” instead of the dictators that have been the torment of  much of Eastern Europe. The point is compounded when we have to hear her read the words of a government that appears to be steering the country onto the rocks. I wonder if her son was thinking of that Shakespeare quote when he too appeared ceremonially before the nation in the first in a series of events marking his increased responsibilities now that his mother has to accept the limitations of age. I hope, like he does no doubt, that he is up to the job.

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