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In the United Kingdommarker, the State Opening of Parliament is an annual event that marks the commencement of a session of the Parliament of the United Kingdommarker. It is held in the House of Lordsmarker Chamber, usually in November or December, or in a General Election year, when the new Parliament first assembles. In 1974, when two General Elections were held, there were two State Openings.

The current Sovereign, Queen Elizabeth II, has opened every session of the Westminster Parliament since her accession except in 1959 and 1963, when she was pregnant with Prince Andrew and Prince Edward, respectively. Her two older children were born during the reign of her father, King George VI. These two sessions were opened by Lords Commissioners, headed by Geoffrey Fisher, the Archbishop of Canterbury, empowered by Her Majesty. The Lord Chancellor read the Queen's Speech on both occasions.

Preparation

The State Opening is a lavish ceremony. First, the cellars of the Palace of Westminstermarker are searched by the Yeomen of the Guard in order to prevent a modern-day Gunpowder Plot. The Plot of 1605 involved a failed attempt by English Catholics to blow up the Houses of Parliament and kill the Protestant King James I and aristocracy. Since that year, the cellars have been searched, recently for the sake of form only.

Before the monarch departs her residence, the Crown takes a member of the House of Commons to Buckingham Palacemarker as a ceremonial hostage. This is to guarantee the safety of the Sovereign as she enters a possibly-hostile Parliament. The hostage is released upon the safe return of the Queen.

Before the arrival of the sovereign the Imperial State Crown is carried to the Palace of Westminster in its own State Coach. From the Victoria Tower, the Crown is passed by the Queen's Bargemaster to the Comptroller of the Lord Chamberlain's office. It is then carried, along with the Sword of State and the Cap of Maintenance, to be displayed in the Royal Gallery.

Arrival of the Sovereign

The Queen arrives at the Palace of Westminstermarker in a horse-drawn coach, entering through Sovereign's Entrance under the Victoria Towermarker. Traditionally, members of the armed forces line the procession route from Buckingham Palacemarker to the Palace of Westminster, otherwise known as the Houses of Parliamentmarker. The Royal Standard is hoisted to replace the Union Flag upon the Sovereign's entrance and remains whilst she is in attendance. Then, after she takes on the Robes of State and the Imperial State Crown in the Robing Chamber, the Queen proceeds through the Royal Gallery, usually accompanied by the Duke of Edinburgh, to the House of Lords. The ceremony is traditionally held in the Lords Chamber rather than in the Commons Chamber due to a custom initiated in the seventeenth century. In 1642, King Charles I entered the Commons Chamber and attempted to arrest five members. The Speaker famously defied the King, refusing to inform him as to where the members were hiding. Ever since that incident, convention has held that The Monarch cannot enter the House of Commons.Once on the Throne, the Queen, wearing the Imperial State Crown, instructs the House by saying, "My Lords, pray be seated", she then motions the Lord Great Chamberlain to instruct the House of Lords Official called 'Black Rod' (named for the symbol of his office) to summon the House of Commons.

Summoning of the Commons

The Lord Great Chamberlain raises his wand of office to signal to the Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod, who has been waiting in the Commons lobby. Black Rod turns and, under the escort of the Doorkeeper of the House of Lords and an inspector of police (who orders "Hats off, Strangers!" to all persons along the way), approaches the doors to the Chamber of the Commons. The doors are slammed in his face upon his approach – symbolising the independence of the Commons and its right to debate without the presence of the Queen's Representative. He then strikes three times with his staff (the Black Rod), and is then admitted. At the bar, Black Rod bows to the speaker before proceeding to the dispatch box and issuing the command of the monarch that the Commons attend, in the following formula:

"Mr/Madam Speaker, The Queen commands this honourable House to attend Her Majesty immediately in the House of Peers."


The Speaker proceeds to attend the summons at once. The Serjeant-at-Arms picks up the ceremonial mace and, with the Speaker and Black Rod, leads the Members of the House of Commons as they walk, in pairs, towards the House of Lords. By custom, the members saunter, with much discussion and joking, rather than formally process. The Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition usually walk side-by-side, leading the two lines of MPs. The Commons then arrive at the Bar of the House of Lords (no person who is not a member of the Upper House may pass the Bar unbidden when it is in session; a similar rule applies to the Commons), where they bow to The Queen. They remain at the Bar for the speech.

Delivery of the speech





The Queen reads a prepared speech, known as the Speech from the Throne or the Queen's Speech, outlining her Government's agenda for the coming year. The speech is not written by the Queen, but rather by the Cabinet, and reflects the legislative agenda they wish to pursue with the agreement of the House of Commonsmarker. It is traditionally written on goatskin vellum.

The Queen reads the entire speech in the same tone, so as to indicate her neutrality, implying neither approval nor disapproval of the policies she is announcing. Since the Cabinet forms part of Her Majesty's Government, the Queen makes constant reference to "My Government" when reading the text. It is also customary for the Queen, after listing the main bills that will be introduced during the yearly session, to state: "other measures will be laid before you", thus giving the Government ability to introduce other bills, not mentioned in the speech. The Queen also mentions any State Visits that she and The Duke of Edinburgh intend making during the Parliamentary session and also any planned State Visits of foreign Heads of State to the United Kingdom. The speech is concluded by the Queen saying:

"My Lords and Members of the House of Commons, I pray that the blessing of Almighty God may rest upon your counsels".


Following the speech, the Commons bow again and return to their Chamber.

Traditionally, the Houses of Parliament listen to the speech respectfully, keeping total silence in the presence of the monarch, neither applauding nor showing dissent towards the speech's contents. This silence, however, was broken once in 1998, when the Queen announced the Government's plan of abolishing the right of hereditary peers to sit in the House of Lords. A few Labour members of the House of Commons cried "yes" and "hear hear," prompting several of the Lords to shout "no" and "shame." The Queen continued delivering her speech without any pause, ignoring the intervention. The conduct of those who interrupted the speech was highly criticised at the time.

Debate on the speech

After the Queen leaves, each Chamber proceeds to the consideration of an "Address in Reply to Her Majesty's Gracious Speech." But first, each House considers a bill pro forma to symbolise their right to deliberate independently of the monarch. In the House of Lords, the bill is called the Select Vestries Bill, while the Commons equivalent is the Outlawries Bill. The Bills are considered for the sake of form only, and do not make any actual progress. The consideration of the address in reply to the Throne Speech is the occasion for a debate on the Government's agenda. The debate on the Address in Reply is spread over several days. On each day, a different topic, such as foreign affairs or finance, is considered. The debate provides an indication of the views of Parliament regarding the government's agenda.

Electing the Speaker

After swearing in the current cabinet, the House of Commons (lower house) elects a Speaker of the House; usually re-electing the incumbent. An election for a new Speaker typically happens every six to eight years, as the Speaker often survives a change of governing party. It is generally a member of the ruling Party, with seniority, but who has not had a significant ministerial career. After he/she is elected they are "dragged unwillingly" to the Speaker's bench. This tradition dates back to the 1600s when the Speaker was under threat of execution if he said anything to displease the King/Queen of the day and the only way they would assume their role was to be dragged to the Speaker's seat. The role of the Speaker is now one of the highest honours that can be bestowed on a politician.

Significance

The State Opening of Parliament is a ceremony loaded with historical ritual and symbolic significance for the governance of the United Kingdom. In one place are assembled the members of all three branches of government, of which the Monarch is the nominal head in each case: the Crown-in-Parliament, (Her Majesty, together with the House of Commons and the House of Lords), constitutes the Legislature; Her Majesty's Ministers (who are members of one or other House) constitute the Executive Government; Her Majesty's Judges, although not members of either House, are summoned to attend and represent the Judiciary. Therefore, the State Opening demonstrates the governance of the United Kingdom but also the separation of powers.

Equivalents, Commonwealth and elsewhere

Similar ceremonies are held in other Commonwealth realms, such as Canadamarker and Australia. On rare occasions, the Queen visits so as to open these parliaments and deliver the Speech from the Throne herself. More usually, however, the Governor General delivers the speech.

In Indiamarker, the President opens Parliament with an address similar to the Speech from the Throne. This is also the case in Commonwealth Republics with a non-executive Presidency such as Maltamarker, Mauritiusmarker and Singaporemarker.

In non-Commonwealth countries, there are also similar speeches by the Head of State. For instance, in the United Statesmarker, there is the State of the Union Address, and in the Philippinesmarker, a former American dependency, there is the State of the Nation Address.

In The Netherlandsmarker and Swedenmarker, a similar ceremony is held on the third Tuesday in September, which is called Prinsjesdag in the Netherlands.

In Israelmarker, a semiannual ceremony, attended by the State President, opens the winter and summer sessions of the Knessetmarker. Though in the past he was a guest sitting in the Knesset's upper deck, the President now attends the ceremony from the speaker's podium and gives his own written address regarding the upcoming session. In the first session of each legislative period of the Knesset, the President has the duty of opening the first session himself and inaugurating the temporary Knesset speaker, and then conducting the inauguration process of all of the Knesset members.

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