London: The State Opening of Parliament straddles Walter Bagehot’s differentiation between the “dignified” and “efficient” parts of the British constitution in that it serves both to “excite and preserve the reverence of the population” via dignified ceremonial and to highlight “the efficient parts – those by which it, in fact, works and rules” via a Queen’s Speech which sets out the government’s legislative programme.
This and many such interesting anecdotes have been put out by David Torrance in a briefing paper issued here recently by the UK Parliament, House of Commons Library, on the State Opening of the British parliament, its history and ceremonial traditions.
A State Opening marks the beginning of a parliamentary session and is the only routine occasion on which the three constituent parts of Parliament – Commons, Lords and the Crown – gather together in the same place. It typically takes place annually, although there have been exceptions. It is largely a matter of convention, although the delivery of a Queen’s Speech to open and end each session forms part of the law and custom of Parliament.
Records suggest the State Opening of the former Parliament of England began during the 15th century. Many of its best-known traditions date from the 17th century, including the Yeoman of the Guard searching the vaults for gunpowder and Black Rod banging on the door of the House of Commons to gain entry.
The ceremonial associated with the State Opening continued as the English and Scottish Parliaments were succeeded by the Parliament of Great Britain and, following the British-Irish Union of 1801, the Parliament of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland (since 1922, Northern Ireland).
When fire destroyed much of the old Palace of Westminster in 1834, those who designed and furnished the new Palace did so with the State Opening in mind: the Victoria Tower with its Sovereign’s Entrance, the Robing Room, Royal Gallery and Throne all remain integral to the ceremony.
The State Opening is not fixed; it has continued to evolve. In 1901 King Edward VII expanded its ceremonial aspects to make the monarchy more visible, while during the Second World War these were reduced and adapted to challenging circumstances. More recently, in 1998-99, Procession numbers were cut and timings altered. Reduced ceremonial was used in 2017, 2019 and 2021, the latter due to Covid restrictions.
Changes are also made to suit the requirements of particular monarchs. Queen Elizabeth II has opened every Parliament bar three (1959, 1963 and 2022) since her accession more than 70 years ago. In 2016 she began to use a lift rather than stairs; and in 2019 a lighter crown was substituted for the Imperial State Crown. With only seven exceptions, the monarch has opened every session of Parliament since 1901.