Ceremonial at the heart of the State

IF there's one thing the British do well, it's ceremonial. After all, we've perfected it over centuries and adapted it to changing times. And for a good morning out, there's nothing like watching the Queen and the nobility all dressed up to the nines.

By Graham Dines

IF there's one thing the British do well, it's ceremonial. After all, we've perfected it over centuries and adapted it to changing times. And for a good morning out, there's nothing like watching the Queen and the nobility all dressed up to the nines.

I bet you didn't know we have a Bluemantle Pursuivant, a Rouge Dragon Pursuivant, and pursuivants for Arundel, Norfolk, Somerset, Windsor, Lancaster, Chester, York and Richmond, along with a Norroy and Ulster King of Arms and a Clarenceux King of Arms. They were all on duty, to escort the Queen through the corridors of the Lords for the State Opening of Parliament, ready to lay down their lives for their sovereign just in case the unthinkable was to happen.

For the first time, yesterday I had a ticket for the press gallery in the Lords to witness the State Opening of Parliament. Only 20 were issued and so I counted myself indeed lucky.


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Unfortunately, we had to be seated by 10.45, which meant I missed watching the ceremonial outside. Even so, walking earlier through Parliament Square into the secure cordon around the Palace of Westminster and guarded by gun carrying police and the military's finest showed just what the occasion means for our democracy.

Foreign ambassadors arrived early in their gas guzzling Mercs, Bentleys, and BMWs. ITA1 bore the Italian delegate while 1ARG carried the man from Argentina. Fortunately, details of the ceremonies to mark the 25th anniversary of our glorious victory in the Falklands over the Argies were given earlier in the week, so the Queen did not have to announce them, thus preventing an unseemly diplomatic incident in the Lords.

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Trendy young things in trouser suits, who somehow had wangled tickets for the big day, were busy photographing each other with mobile phones as the Royal Navy Guard of Honour was assembling and much merriment was being occasioned by the man dressed in a Union Flag suit who was jumping up and down opposite the MPs' entrance carrying a placard saying “John Reid for Prime Minister.”

Inside the Lords, the few people who could be accommodated in the tiny galleries were soaking up the atmosphere as lords in ermine, ladies in tiaras, and judges in their finery were seated. Most picked out Lord Levy - the man at the centre of the loans for peerages row which threatens to topple Tony Blair, who was holding forth to his fellow peers.

Considering the Lords is an anachronism, it has mastered the news age. Giant plasma screen televisions are hung around the chamber, and broadcast the television feed showing the Royal progress from Buckingham Palace to Westminster.

The official programme gave the times of all the happening events. Precision is everything, and nothing ran late. The Imperial State Crown, that monstrously heavy headwear the Queen dons for state occasions, arrived with the Cap of Maintenance and the Sword of State exactly at 10.52.

Her Majesty entered the Chamber and was seated by 11.30. Black Rod went to the Commons, had the door slammed in his face, and after knocking three times to gain admission, summoned the Speaker and MPs to Her Majesty's presence to listen to her speech. They trooped through the lobbies and crowded around the Bar of Lords to hear details of coming legislation and of the Queen's visit to America.

Labour MPs resent all the ermine and tiaras having precedence over them. Many refuse to march to the Lords. But they will have been delighted when the Queen announced a Bill to reform the upper house would be presented during this session.

Ten minutes later, it was over. As Big Ben struck noon and the bells of Westminster Abbey rang out, the Queen's carriage and her escort of the Household Cavalry were legging it up Whitehall back to the Palace.

John Reid's friend was still outside, appropriately enough as much of the legislation on offer emanates from the Home Office. The Queen will have noted popular support for this ex-communist.

The State Opening of Parliament causes massive disruption in central London. Westminster roads are closed to traffic for hours. Buses are diverted. Hundreds of troops and police are on duty for the morning - and all for a 10 minutes speech, much of which had been leaked to the media.

But it's what Britain is all about. Long may it continue.

graham.dines@eadt.co.uk

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