PAGEANTRY

The UK still puts on this beautiful and completely arcane ceremony to open parliament

Britain has had a tradition of a speech by the king or queen to mark the ceremonial start of a new political year dating back to at least the 16th century. Since 1852, a speech by the reigning monarch is the method by which the UK’s government communicates its annual plans to the nation.

Today, Queen Elizabeth II walked into the palace of Westminster, sat on a throne, and read a speech written by the first new all-Conservative government since 1992. It’s an act of political ventriloquism that is at once strange, mesmerizing, and archaic.

The speech itself mentioned many of the things the country expected to hear, and some that commentators had predicted would not be included.

A referendum on whether the UK should remain part of the European Union was once again promised by the end of 2017, the same timescale as has been talked about over the past several years—despite increasing hints that prime minister David Cameron might want to have it sooner. More devolved powers to Scotland, Wales, and large British cities were also no surprise.

The Conservative plan to scrap a piece of legislation called the Human Rights Act has been controversial, and there was speculation it would be left out. But while the act itself wasn’t not mentioned by name, its replacement—a “British Bill of Rights”—was.

Britain's Queen Elizabeth (C) sits with Prince Philip (R), Prince Charles (2nd L) and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, as she reads the Queen's Speech in the House of Lords, during the State Opening of Parliament at the Palace of Westminster in London May 8, 2013. REUTERS/Jon Bond/Pool (BRITAIN - Tags: ROYALS POLITICS ENTERTAINMENT SOCIETY) - RTXZFA7
Little has changed since 2013. Or 1852, for that matter. (Reuters/Jon Bond)

Other bills on “a new generation of psychoactive drugs” and cybercrime sounded particularly strange coming from the mouth of the monarch, who is in her 63rd year as head of state.

Things have changed a lot in that time and the monarchy remains steadily, if somewhat inexplicably, popular. Yet the UK still puts on this rich pageant: the Queen’s crown glittering with jewels; her yards of red robe trimmed with fur. The lords decked out in black and gold; Prince Charles and his father Philip carrying swords.

After a new session of parliament starts, members of both the House of Commons and House of Lords debate the contents and agree an “Address in Reply to Her Majesty’s Gracious Speech.” The pomp also features a House of Lords official named “Black Rod.”

How much longer the tradition continues will likely depend on the Queen’s longevity, and that of her successors. On September 9th 2015, she will overtake Queen Victoria to become the longest-serving monarch ever to rule Britain.

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