As a fanfare sounded, how peculiar not to see that serene, familiar presence process into view: Prince Charles standing in for Her Majesty at State Opening of Parliament was a big moment in personal, historic and constitutional terms, writes ROBERT HARDMAN
Having sat through a seminar on constitutional history at Queen Mary and Westfield College during her visit in 1992, the Queen turned to one of our greatest authorities on the subject, Professor Peter Hennessy, and remarked: ‘The British Constitution has always been puzzling – and always will be.’
For proof of that, we only had to look at Parliament yesterday.
There, her officials, her parliamentarians and her judiciary were merrily tying themselves up in knots as they attempted to reproduce that greatest of constitutional rituals, the State Opening of Parliament, minus that crucial ingredient – the head of state.
Was this a ‘State Opening’ or an ‘Opening’? No one seemed sure.
Should we be calling this the ‘Queen’s Speech’ or not? Or even the ‘Prince’s Speech’? Again, the jury was out.
Last night, Downing Street couldn’t make up its mind and, bizarrely, had posted a transcript of the wrong speech on its website.
Such are the joys of our unwritten constitution. Little wonder the Queen finds it ‘puzzling’, given that it can befuddle so many of her senior advisers.
However, she had been very clear about one thing. In her absence, due to ‘episodic mobility’ issues, she had wanted the Prince of Wales to read her speech. And no one was minded to quibble with our longest-reigning monarch in her Jubilee year.
Prince Charles, Prince of Wales, sits by the The Imperial State Crown, in the House of Lords Chamber, during the historic State Opening of Parliament today
Tradition and precedent dictate that, when the sovereign is absent, Parliament is opened by a panel of ‘Lords Commissioners’ with the Lord Chancellor reading the speech.
That is what happened when Queen Victoria, George V and the Queen’s father had all failed to attend for one reason or another. It is what happened on the two occasions she was absent during pregnancy.
Yesterday, the Queen had wanted to break that tradition, thus depriving Lord Chancellor Dominic Raab of his moment in the constitutional sun.
She had issued Letters Patent laying down new arrangements for her eldest son and heir to read the speech and for him to open Parliament along with the Duke of Cambridge.
This was, unquestionably, a very big moment in personal, historic and, of course, constitutional terms. Yet there was nothing remotely incongruous about hearing those deep, mellow tones reading out the Government’s new programme, instead of the more clipped diction we have heard for as long as most of us can recall.
The prince carried out his task with the polish, gravitas and confidence we might expect from the longest-serving heir to the throne in history.
Though bare-headed and not dressed in robes of state – he was in his Admiral of the Fleet uniform with Garter collar and Thistle sash – he looked and sounded the full regal part. Of course, he was born to it. But he has now been playing an active role in public life for longer than anyone else in the Chamber yesterday.
He attended his first State Opening in 1967, before many of those on parade had even been born. Sitting alongside him, in plain morning dress, the Duke of Cambridge looked older than some of the MPs at the back.
Queen Elizabeth II ahead of the Queen’s Speech in the House of Lord’s Chamber during the State Opening of Parliament at the House of Lords on May 11, 2021
Cars with dignitaries leave Buckingham Palace for the State Opening of Parliament at the Palace of Westminster in London
There were a few other modernising touches, including the Duchess of Cornwall’s stunning navy dress, coat and hat. For the first time, the procession boasted a female herald, Professor Anne Curry, a medieval historian from the University of Southampton. From now on, at state occasions, however, she will be known as ‘Arundel Herald Extraordinary’.
The proceedings included the Household Cavalry’s first husband-and-wife State Trumpeters, Kate and Julian Sandford. Yet as their fanfare sounded, it did feel peculiar not to see the solemn, serene personification of permanence coming into view.
In the absence of the Queen, the authorities were keen to weed out anything which might smack of ‘regency’ (even if the prince’s presiding role as Counsellor of State was arranged under the terms of the Regency Act 1937).
The outward symbols were designed to stress the prince’s role as a deputy, not a replacement. So, the Queen’s usual position was occupied by the Imperial State Crown. She has not worn it for six years because the last few State Openings were reduced, dressed-down affairs for various reasons.
It has always been an ordeal due to the need to carry 2.3lbs of jewels (think two bags of sugar) on one’s head and read a speech without looking down.
For most of her reign, the Queen would summon it from the Tower of London a day early so she could wander around the house getting used to the weight. Yesterday, it had pride of place while the prince sat on the throne previously occupied by the Duke of Edinburgh and, before him, by Queen Elizabeth and Queen Mary.
Britain’s Prince Charles, Prince of Wales (2nd R) reads the Queen’s Speech as he sits by the Imperial State Crown (2nd L), Britain’s Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall (R) and Britain’s Prince William, Duke of Cambridge (L) in the House of Lords chamber
Prince Charles, centre, reads the Queen’s Speech as he sits next to the Imperial State Crown with Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, right, and his son Prince William, left
There was no sign of the Prince of Wales’s standard flying above Parliament. While the Royal Standard would have been ‘broken’ when she arrived, yesterday there was just the Union flag.
The wording of Black Rod’s message to the Commons had been carefully rewritten, too. On previous occasions, when the monarch has been absent, Black Rod would always tell MPs their presence was ‘desired’ in the Upper House.
Yesterday, Black Rod told them they were ‘commanded’ by Her Majesty to attend her Counsellors of State. No matter that she was not waiting for them in person.
Interestingly, the Palace had also observed the tradition that an MP (always a senior whip) is held ‘hostage’ at Buckingham Palace to ensure the safe return of the sovereign.
Conservative MP James Morris duly spent the morning as a captive at the other end of the Mall, even if there was no chance of Parliament locking up a monarch who was watching the proceedings on TV down at Windsor. So, would the prince recite the Queen’s text in the first person – ‘My government…’ – as the Lord Chancellor has done when standing in?
Or would he have to read it in the third person? It turns out that parliamentary law officers were still debating the prince’s correct legal persona yesterday morning until shortly before the start.
The answer duly came ten words into his speech as he made the first of many mentions to ‘Her Majesty’s Government…’
The heir to the throne follows the crown after the historic speech from a gilded throne in the House of Lords
On either side of Charles were William, in a morning coat, at his first State Opening, and the Duchess of Cornwall, wearing a day dress and hat, in the Chairs of State
The Lords, it must be said, was not looking its best. Not so long ago, the State Opening was so oversubscribed that peers would hold a ballot for tickets. Yesterday, there were plenty of gaps and one entirely empty bench, save for the unopened order papers.
Lords insiders pointed out some of the newer breed of Labour and Lib Dem peers are simply uninterested in what they, presumably, regard as outdated tradition.
The MPs, as custom dictates, arrived as noisily as ever and filled every available space at the back.
Afterwards, House of Lords and Buckingham Palace officials were still calling it the ‘State Opening’. Yet, Parliament’s new and extensive guide to the State Opening, by David Torrance of the House of Commons Library, is clear enough: ‘If the Queen is not present, there is no State Opening.’
No 10 published the text of the speech online, calling it: ‘Her Majesty’s most gracious speech’. It added: ‘Transcript of the speech, exactly as it was delivered…’
Yet it was not. All the way through, for some reason, it referred to ‘My government’ – which is not what was delivered.
They might seem minor points. Yet, on a day such as this, these things matter. ‘Puzzling’ indeed.
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