Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Power to the People but not when Ruritania comes to town

It's that time of the year again when the issues to be presented to Parliament in the next session are announced and what a weird and anachronistic way to do it. One of the less attractive features of the British is our pathological need to ritualise tradition and today's State Opening of Parliament is a brilliant example of this. A wonderfully over-the-top gothic pantomime of epic Hollywood proportions. The Queen (gawd bless her) processes in state from Buckingham Palace to the Houses of Parliament in a glittering coach, flanked by ranks of the Household Cavalry. In an elaborate ceremony with all the Crown Jewels on display, she reads out a list of government bills from the throne in the House of Lords. Only the British could still be doing this sort of thing in the 21st century! Either us or some tin-pot dictator with galloping delusions of grandeur!

It’s a colourful ceremony of seemingly ancient rituals (but they are not as old as you might think) where all the symbols and offices of the constitution come together under one roof. The Lords gather in their ermine robes and the Commons are summoned to attend in a famous door-slamming ritual played out by Black Rod ((by tradition, the Queen cannot enter the Commons). It is amazing how little things have changed in parliament over the last two centuries! It’s a grand pageant set in elaborate 17th century costumes of wigs, breeches, tights and ruffs. Pure high camp drama. The Crown, the Cap of Maintenance (the what?!), the Dutch Cap of Prevention (I'm sorry, I made that one up. I just couldn't help myself) and the Sword of State make an appearance along with officials with extravagant titles like Garter King of Arms and, a particular favourite of mine, Rouge Dragon Pursuivant! The camp splendour of the royal procession through Parliament is quite a sight. The uniforms, gowns, robes and the Crown jewels themselves are spectacular. More Ruritanian pantomime than serious government procedure.

The Queen finally takes her place on the Throne (titter, titter) in the House of Lords and the Commons file into the chamber. The Tories looking smug and, I'm glad to see, many Labour ministers and MPs appearing suitably bewildered by the occasion. The speech (and it's not any old speech, it's the Gracious Speech and is read from a goat-skin vellum scroll**) is a turgid list of Government business and legislation, prefaced with a regal, “My government will…”. It’s dull and no one pretends otherwise - and what's on this year's menu is duller than most.  As soon as the speech is complete, the Queen and her entourage process all the way back again (no, not backwards - sadly they spoil things by turning around) and the politicians get down to the serious business of making soundbites and point scoring - sorry, I meant to say the serious business of debating.

The one thing you can’t help noticing is how undemocratic the whole thing is. Only a third of those in attendance, the House of Commons, is elected by we plebs. The rest are hereditary or appointed. Within the ceremony, the Commons are conspicuously the least prominent. During the speech MPs (our representatives, remember) crowd in at the back of the room -rather like naughty school children, it's always struck me. Of course, it could be argued that any ceremony that makes politicians stand at the back must be a good thing!

However, there is one element that is totally missing from all of the above. The people. Any government presentation outlining upcoming intentions and priorities should, in the modern world (Hey - it's 2013 already or maybe Black Rod and Rouge Dragon Pursuivant haven't noticed?), be aimed at us, the electorate. Strip away the constitutional flummery and you’re left with a governing party stating what it’s going to do in the upcoming parliament. That’s important, and it should be presented to the people in a clear, unambiguous way. It's weird that a day of such high politics should start with such an archaic royal ritual. How long is all of this going to last. Will we see a radical overhaul at the end of the current reign ? Will a forward looking King Charles scale it down or abolish it all together? Probably not.

OK, so it’s a bit of constitutional glitter that pomp and pageantry junkies (and tourists) love. But does it really add any value to government in the 21st century? Would we not be better off with a State of the Union style speech to parliament and people by the Prime Minister? Isn't that what a representational democracy demands? Isn't that what the electorate deserve?

** I was being a little economical with the truth here. It is not on vellum anymore. It is on "goatskin parchment paper" but, confusingly, it's not actually made from goatskin. However it is very high quality, thick paper, which is why the ink takes several days to dry, and it then needs to be bound into a booklet, before being sent on to Her Majesty for signing. I wonder if she uses joined-up handwriting for this?

No comments: