The British Are Killing the United States in Political Theater

The annual Queen’s Speech, which took place Wednesday morning, is worlds better than anything American politics offers up.

Queen Elizabeth II and the Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh proceed through the Royal Gallery during the State Opening of Parliament in the House of Lords at the Palace of Westminster on June 4, 2014 in London, England. 
National Journal
Matt Berman
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Matt Berman
June 4, 2014, 5:51 a.m.

The State of the Uni­on ad­dress is tired.

This is lit­er­ally true: One of the few joys the an­nu­al speech of­fers is the chance to catch a mem­ber of Con­gress nod­ding off. When the most mem­or­able SOTU mo­ment in the past sev­er­al years has been a back­bench con­gress­man shout­ing “you lie” or a pres­id­ent talk­ing about “hu­man-an­im­al hy­brids,” you know it’s time for a change.

The good news is, Wed­nes­day morn­ing show­cased the world’s best an­nu­al polit­ic­al theat­er: the Queen’s Speech in Great Bri­tain, a reas­on­ably dull ad­dress writ­ten by the gov­ern­ment’s polit­ic­al lead­ers dressed up in the kind of ex­treme pa­geantry the U.S. polit­ic­al sys­tem could really use.

Be­cause if our gov­ern­ment isn’t go­ing to ac­com­plish any­thing, it may as well look really damn crazy while not do­ing it.

The Queen’s Speech is part of the form­al State Open­ing of Par­lia­ment in the U.K., which marks the be­gin­ning of the par­lia­ment­ary year. Its tra­di­tions date back to the 16th cen­tury, with most of the mod­ern open­ing go­ing back to 1852, when the Palace of West­min­ster, the home of Par­lia­ment, was re­opened after a fire. Much like the Amer­ic­an State of the Uni­on, it’s a time for agenda set­ting by the party (or in this case, parties) in power.

But from the start, it is ba­na­nas. The open­ing be­gins with the 88-year-old Queen Eliza­beth II (who holds no real power in gov­ern­ment) leav­ing Buck­ing­ham Palace in an or­nate car­riage to West­min­ster, es­cor­ted by the House­hold Cav­alry, her of­fi­cial body­guard. That cav­alry takes the “roy­al route” to Par­lia­ment.

Bri­tain’s Queen Eliza­beth II rides with Prince Philip, Duke of Ed­in­burgh, in the Dia­mond Ju­bilee state coach from Buck­ing­ham Palace to at­tend the State Open­ing of Par­lia­ment in Lon­don on Wed­nes­day.  (JUSTIN TAL­LIS/AFP/Getty Im­ages)

Be­fore the queen ar­rives at West­min­ster, the build­ing’s cel­lars are ce­re­mo­ni­ously searched by the Yeo­men of the Guard, equipped with lan­terns for the oc­ca­sion, a tra­di­tion that dates back to 1605. And un­like in the U.S., where a mem­ber of the pres­id­ent’s Cab­in­et is kept away from the event in case of cata­strophe, for the Queen’s Speech, the roy­al fam­ily gets to hold a mem­ber of Par­lia­ment as host­age at Buck­ing­ham Palace to en­sure the queen’s safe re­turn.

Yeo­man of the Guard, wear­ing tra­di­tion­al uni­form walk, through the Roy­al Gal­lery dur­ing the ce­re­mo­ni­al search be­fore the State Open­ing of Par­lia­ment in the House of Lords on Wed­nes­day. (Yui Mok - WPA Pool/Getty Im­ages)

When the queen fi­nally gets to West­min­ster, she ar­rives at the Sov­er­eign En­trance, the only en­trance the mon­arch is al­lowed to use to get in­to Par­lia­ment (no mon­arch has entered the House of Com­mons since Charles I tried to ar­rest five mem­bers of Par­lia­ment in 1642). She is met there by her Re­galia: the Im­per­i­al State Crown, the Cap of Main­ten­ance (Ed­it­or’s note: that’s a killer name) and the Sword of State, all of which traveled to West­min­ster ahead of the queen in a sep­ar­ate car­riage.

Here’s the scene from Wed­nes­day’s Re­galia ar­rival:{{ BIZOBJ (video: 5000) }}

And then, of course, the ac­tu­al ar­rival of the queen:{{ BIZOBJ (video: 5001) }}

The queen then heads up the Sov­er­eign Stair­case to the of­fi­cial Rob­ing Room, and from there, decked out in the Im­per­i­al State Crown and Robe of State, leads the Roy­al Pro­ces­sion to the throne in the Lords Cham­ber.

Take a mo­ment to com­pare this Roy­al Pro­ces­sion to the U.S. stand­ard Wait for the Pres­id­ent to Ac­know­ledge My Ex­ist­ence routine that mem­bers of Con­gress em­ploy be­fore every single State of the Uni­on. Now let’s move on.

While the queen’s road to the State Open­ing is heavy on the pomp, the jour­ney that her speech­writers take is far more la­bor­i­ous. Dur­ing her pro­ces­sion, mem­bers of the House of Com­mons, in­clud­ing the prime min­is­ter, re­main in the Com­mons cham­ber. This is where the Gen­tle­man Ush­er of the Black Rod comes in. Black Rod is a seni­or of­ficer in the House of Lords who is re­spons­ible for bring­ing the mem­bers of the House of Com­mons to the Lords’ cham­ber for the Queen’s speech. 

He — sur­prise, sur­prise — car­ries a black rod. And this is his big day.

To kick off the ac­tion, Black Rod is sent from the Lords cham­ber to the Com­mons cham­ber. Dur­ing his trip over, an in­spect­or po­lice who joins him shouts, “Hats off, strangers!” to on­look­ers who, by and large, are not wear­ing hats. When Black Rod ar­rives at the Com­mons cham­ber, a door is slammed in his face. A rough start for Black Rod, but the slam­ming of the door is a long-stand­ing tra­di­tion that sym­bol­izes the House of Com­mons’ in­de­pend­ence from the mon­archy.

Now is the mo­ment Black Rod gets to use that black rod of his. Black Rod takes his ebony stick and bangs it three times on the Com­mons door, at which time the door to the cham­ber is opened by mem­bers of Par­lia­ment. At this time, La­bour MP and mon­arch-ant­ag­on­ist Den­nis Skin­ner makes a tra­di­tion­al joke about how dumb this all is (help­ful best of com­pil­a­tion here). From there, a loud and noisy walk be­gins, as mem­bers of Par­lia­ment, in­clud­ing the prime min­is­ter, jaunt from the Com­mons cham­ber to the Lords cham­ber, all while pre­tend­ing to get along with one-an­oth­er.

Here’s the full video of today’s Black Rod sum­mon­ing. And if you listen closely, you’ll catch Skin­ner’s (pretty weak) joke, less anti-mon­archy this year than anti-rul­ing Con­ser­vat­ive-Lib­er­al Demo­crat gov­ern­ment: “Co­ali­tion’s last stand.”{{ BIZOBJ (video: 5002) }}

And, of course, here’s a pic­ture cap­tur­ing something fa­mil­i­ar to U.S. polit­ic­al watch­ers: polit­ic­al lead­ers awk­wardly walk­ing along, pre­tend­ing to ac­tu­ally be en­joy­ing each oth­er’s com­pany. This par­tic­u­lar photo isn’t too kind to Deputy Prime Min­is­ter Nick Clegg (far right, look­ing in­to the elect­or­al abyss). Brit­ish Prime Min­is­ter Dav­id Camer­on, Deputy Prime Min­is­ter Nick Clegg, and Lead­er of the La­bour Party Ed Miliband walk through the Mem­bers’ Lobby be­fore the Queen’s Speech.  (Matt Dun­ham - WPA Pool/Getty Im­ages)

Once the mem­bers of the Com­mons ar­rive in the Lords cham­ber, they stand on the op­pos­ite side of the room from the throne.

Then, it’s time for the speech. Wed­nes­day’s was 10 minutes long, pretty dry, and well, not really worth watch­ing.

The ac­tu­al policy rami­fic­a­tions of the Queen’s Speech are min­im­al. The polit­ic­al agenda is set, but it’s an agenda that was pretty widely known be­fore the speech (the House of Com­mons pub­lished a list of bills ex­pec­ted to come up in the ad­dress weeks ago), and one that would go for­ward even if it didn’t come out of Queen Eliza­beth II’s roy­al face. Wed­nes­day’s speech only laid out 11 new bills, al­though they did in­clude meas­ures on pen­sions and frack­ing.

After the speech, the queen re­turns home, with just as much pomp as you’d ex­pect at this point.

Queen Eliza­beth and Prince Philip are es­cor­ted by mem­bers of the House­hold Cav­alry along the Mall back to Buck­ing­ham Palace after de­liv­er­ing the Queen’s Speech.  (AD­RI­AN DEN­NIS/AFP/Getty Im­ages)

There are also, of course, horns. A Guard of Hon­or marches past Buck­ing­ham Palace and down the Mall.  (Mat­thew Lloyd/Getty Im­ages)

When Brit­ish polit­ics is go­ing through a wringer just ahead of a polit­ic­al sym­bol­ic by-elec­tion and just after the ex­treme right, anti-im­mig­rant U.K. In­de­pend­ence Party’s vic­tory in the European par­lia­ment­ary elec­tions, it’s not the worst thing to have a bit of fun. “There isn’t much polit­ics here,” said Mat­thew Par­ris, polit­ic­al colum­nist for The Times, on the BBC just be­fore the speech began. “The pa­geantry is all, ac­tu­ally, we should just en­joy the pa­geantry.”

And, hey, it’s not like the U.S. State of the Uni­on really means much of any­thing sub­stan­tial any­more, either. It’s prob­ably a little late in the game to sud­denly in­tro­duce a Black Ro­di­an char­ac­ter to our an­nu­al polit­ic­al tra­di­tion, but there is still plenty to learn here. One nice, steal­able touch: At the con­clu­sion of the Queen’s Speech, Par­lia­ment gets right to work de­bat­ing the policies the speech laid out. That surely beats out the Amer­ic­an sys­tem of hav­ing a series of in­ane, semi-tele­vised re­sponses.

At the very least, we could al­ways just hand off the text of the State of the Uni­on to be read by our na­tion­al equi­val­ent of a mat­ri­arch.

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