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:
And then, of course, the actual arrival of the queen:
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.”
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.