This week’s State Opening of Parliament reminds us that the event has both political and constitutional significance. Every Government uses a Queen’s Speech to turn the page on one set of legislation and to lay out the next, and for all of us as MPs it gives an overview of what will be occupying our time over the coming months. Journalists like to talk about political ‘resets’ but it is the occasion’s constitutional significance that perhaps matters more. The State Opening of Parliament encapsulates, with all the ceremony we British do so well, the essence of constitutional monarchy. The Monarch is nominally sovereign, but Parliament and Government hold real power. Parliament cannot begin to legislate until the Monarch invites us to, but the speech the Monarch delivers is written by the Government. To add procedural emphasis to that practical reality, the doors of the House of Commons Chamber are slammed shut in the face of the Monarch’s emissary when they arrive. Political authority is exercised in the name of the Monarch rather than on the part of the Monarch, an arrangement which, like much of the British constitution, is theoretically unworkable but practically useful.
I think this year’s State Opening also reminds us of another constitutional truth however. The monarchy is an institution, not an individual, as our current exemplary Monarch would be the first to agree. Her Majesty the Queen did not deliver the speech this week for the first time in nearly 60 years, an indication in itself of her remarkable lifetime of service to the nation, but the speech was still delivered. The constitutional process continued, with her son and heir standing in for her, and with his heir in attendance too. Continuity was the clear message. Of course, if you are not a monarchist you are unlikely to welcome that message, but I am and I do. Aside from the more incidental benefits I could argue our monarchy brings to our economy, especially our significant tourism sector, I believe our constitutional monarchy has delivered remarkable stability. A non-partisan, non-political Head of State is a far less divisive focus of national pride than a Head of State with a clear political identity, and moments of Royal significance have provided us with opportunities to come together in national celebration, not least the upcoming Platinum Jubilee. I do not see moments of Presidential significance as likely to have the same unifying effect. So I regret Her Majesty’s absence from this year’s State Opening of Parliament and wish her well, but welcome too the monarchy’s ongoing involvement in this event and in the wider life of our nation.