What is the Queen’s Speech?

Posted by Speakeasy News > Wednesday 21 June 2017 > In the News


The Queen's Speech is shorthand for the UK's State Opening of Parliament, which takes place annually at the beginning of each parliamentary session. Traditionally that is in May, but it also happens after a general election. The monarch reads out a speech to the assembled Houses of Lords and Commons detailing the government's programme of legislation for the upcoming year.

The State Opening is one of those occasions full of pomp and circumstance beloved by Brits and tourists alike. Normally, the Queen arrives by horse-drawn coach surrounded by mounted guards, and delivers the speech from the golden throne in the House of Lords with her crown and all the symbols of royal power surrounding her.

SN_queenspeech05_int
The Lords are dressed in all their finery.

There are many traditions associated with the State Opening, dating back to days when relations between the Monarch and his or her citizens and MPs were less than cordial. In memory of Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot to blow up Parliament and King James I in 1605, before each State Opening, the Yeomen of the Guard (Beefeaters) ritually search the cellars of the building to check there are no barrels of gunpowder! One member of the House of Commons is taken symbolically hostage and kept in Buckingham Palace for the duration of the ceremony, to guarantee the monarch's safety.

Beefeaters search Parliament's cellars for gunpowder. A quaint tradition that takes on poignant relevance given recent terrorist attacks outside Parilament.
Beefeaters search Parliament's cellars for gunpowder. A quaint tradition that takes on poignant relevance given recent terrorist attacks outside Parliament.

The Queen reads the speech in the House of Lords, so a House of Lords official, Black Rod, is sent to summon the members of the House of Commons. To show their independence from the monarch, the MPs slam the door to the chamber in Black Rod's face. He or she then has to knock on the door three times with the rod before the door is opened and the MPs accept the invitation.

Black Rod knocks three times at the door of the Chamber of Commons.
Black Rod knocks three times at the door of the Chamber of Commons.

Even the speech itself, or rather what it is written on, is part of the tradition. The speech, like all British laws, is written on vellum, calf-skin parchment. It is very long-lasting and an excellent way to preserve texts – the oldest law in Parliament's library dates from 1497 and is still easily readable. But it takes several days for the ink to dry on vellum.

Dressed-Down
This year's State Opening is unusual in several ways. Because it followed a snap election, and fell in the same week as Trooping the Colours, the Queen's official birthday, it was not in the Queen's official calendar. A ceremony has been rushed together but the Queen is wearing a dress, not robes, and arriving by car, not coach.

The last time this happened was in 1974, when Labour PM Harold Wilson was struggling to form a minority government. Sound familiar?

Perhaps optimistically, the speech is supposed to cover two years' legislation, not one, because Parliament will be extremely busy transferring hundreds of EU laws into British law in anticipation of Brexit.

However, as the Queen reads the speech, the Conservatives have still not come to an agreement with the DUP party for a coalition. The days following the State Opening are devoted to debating the Queen's Speech in both Houses, concluding with a vote in the House of Commons. If Theresa May doesn't manage to cobble together a majority for that vote, another Queen's Speech may have to follow.



Webpicks Useful websites and online tools for classroom use
> Queen Elizabeth II Teaching Tools
> Guy Fawkes Webpicks
Ready to Use Downloadable resources ready to use in class
> UK Elections
> Guy Fawkes