The Queen's speech to open the British parliamentary session is an example of majesty and theatrics, along with titles straight out of a Harry Potter book, writes Michael Simkins.
Pomp, ceremony and a coalition government on its last legs
Last week those of us in the UK were treated to one of those spectacles that make living here such fun. The state opening of Parliament is one of those cultural curios that could only have been concocted in this sceptred isle.
The event itself represents the stuff dreams are made of. The monarch, robed in all her official regalia, arrives at Westminster in a gilded coach pulled by plumed horses, whereupon she enters Parliament to deliver a speech in which she outlines her government’s aims for the forthcoming session.
With both chambers (Lords and Commons) required to attend, the occasion offers the spectacle of the leading protagonists of competing political parties processing side by side. Normally, such implacable opponents would like nothing better than to shake each other warmly by the throat, but protocol dictates that on this day they must exchange cordial chitchat and rictus grins as they approach the Queen’s presence.
The event also allows a brief view of various ceremonial flunkeys who at other times are hidden from public gaze. Both their archaic costumes and their official titles read like a chapter from a Harry Potter book. In an archaic ceremony called the “Fascinated Perusal of the Titles”, we witness such eminent personages as the “Maltravers Herald Extraordinary”, “Rouge Croix Pursuivant” and “Gold Stick In Waiting”.
There was even some unexpected drama among all the pomp and ceremony. Midway through her speech, the Queen’s flow was momentarily disrupted when one of the attendant page boys succumbed to the excitement of the occasion and collapsed like a sack of potatoes just inches from her feet.
But the Queen didn’t get where she is today by panicking at the first sign of trouble. As she continued without so much as a sideways glance, the unfortunate lad was carried out to a place of safety, where he was successfully revived (no doubt with glass of foaming purple elixir administered by the Royal Reviver Pursuant of overexcited minors).
The speech itself proved something of an anticlimax, containing both the deeply profound and the yawningly mundane. Among the planned legislation, we learnt that the government will exact a levy of 5p (30 fils) for plastic carrier bags in supermarkets, and draw up special measures to prevent the arrival of the Asian hornet, a lethal insect already in France that could wreak havoc with our domestic honeybees.
In fairness it also contained more serious items. Fracking, the controversial method of extracting energy from the ground by blasting it with high pressure hoses, is to be encouraged by measures designed to reform planning law. Other initiatives included plans to give individuals freedom over their pension savings, and offer up to £2,000 (Dh12,300) per annum to parents to help with their childcare costs.
But if the speech was limited in its ambition, it’s hardly surprising. For both government and opposition have other things on their minds just now – namely, the approaching election next May. Indeed, the next 11 months represent the closing chapter of the current administration. This unwieldy partnership of the Conservatives and Lib Dems may have dumbfounded its critics, many of whom balefully prophesied back in 2010 it would last barely a year: but their time together is nearly over.
By a twist of fate as capricious as it is puzzling, the Conservatives seem to have picked up much the credit for the recent resurgence in the nation’s fortunes, while the Lib Dems have been blamed for any supposed shortcomings. And with their poll ratings currently descending faster than a fainting page boy, they’ll do well to maintain a presence in Westminster come next May, let alone a collective seat around the cabinet table.
The Queen’s speech thus indicated nothing so much as an imminent parting of the ways. The coalition’s work is done: and now all that remains is to gently decouple and subsequently advertise, as best they can, why they are both utterly separate and why the other party can no longer be trusted.
Next time we see the Maltravers Herald Extraordinary at work, the political landscape is likely to be very different from anything we recognise today. Of one thing we can be certain – if the Queen could only provide a Ceremonial Royal Predictor of the Future at such occasions, she would enjoy the undying gratitude from all shades of the political spectrum.
Michael Simkins is an actor and writer based in London
On Twitter: @michael_simkins