The State Opening of Parliament, 9 May 2012
Every year, at this time of rich and ruddy ceremonial, the same questions always recur. Is all this ostentatious display rather splendid or rather naff? Can we justify the cost? What will the Speech contain and how long will it take?
The first of these questions will be debated for ever, but on the matter of the Speech now, at least, we know. It contained just eight words and was over in a little under three seconds. Once again the state opening of Dennis Skinner proved to be a considerable disappointment.
For the record, the eight words were "diamond jubilee, double dip recession, what a start". These were uttered by Mr Skinner as Black Rod, bearing the implement from which he takes his name, strode towards the Speaker to summon the Commons to attend upon Her Majesty. Judging by the reaction that Mr Skinner's peroration produced, there were many in the House who would have liked Black Rod to have taken a belt at the member for Bolsover with his eponymous tool. Alas, this is not the tradition. Tradition is that somebody on the BBC refers to Mr Skinner's quip. Like many things in our heritage this is a misnomer. A quip is something that is funny. Mr Skinner's quips are never funny. They are crass, embarrassing and self-indulgent. This too is part of the warp and weft of our constitution.
The Skinner's Speech dispensed with for another year, the Commons proceeded in double file to listen to the competing attraction playing at the other end of the building. In common with Black Rod, members should really be referred to by some distinguishing characteristic on, about or pertaining to their person. Thus, Speaker Bercow, leading off in his robes, is Gold-Trimmed Ego. The Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition come next: Posh Major and Toothy Panda. They are followed by their deputies, the Clegg of State and Leopard Jacket. Next come Slaphead Envoy and Man People Are always Getting Muddled Up with Danny Alexander, followed by Posh Minor and Manic Gesture and so on and so forth, down the line of precedence until we get to the humblest, or in many cases not so humblest, MP. Louise Mensch is there, or Twitter Fodder as she is known, and Nadine Dorries who, since if the Tories get their way with the boundary review will be looking for another seat, bears the ceremonial title of Try the Outer Hebrides.
When this oddly assorted group gets to the other end, there is, of course, nowhere for them to sit. Instead they mill around for about 20 minutes resembling a group of commuters held back at the barriers at Oxford Circus while the police check out a bomb scare. During this period they are entertained by the Queen's own speech, a loose confection thrown together by her ministers. As is usual, it spoke to the important animating themes of the Coalition Government, which might best be summed up as vaguely casting about for a few presentable ideas.
A couple of Bills usually manage to capture the attention. There was the draft communications bill, which will make it easier for the police and other agencies to get at data from phone calls and e-mails. These other agencies presumably do not include News International, who have managed the same effect without the need for primary legislation. And there will also be a draft bill to reform the water industry, which may or may not have something to do with trying to get it to stop raining. This Bill will apply to England and Wales only, Scotland presumably having been written off as a lost cause.
Debate on the speech resumed in the Commons at two-thirty after a long lunch. Nadhim Zahawi, who sits for Stratford-upon-Avon, moved the motion welcoming the address, and spoke much about William Shakespeare. Then Malcolm Bruce, who represents a fertile swathe of Scotland, talked about whisky. Of the two, Mr Bruce was the more assiduous in pressing the claims of his constituency. There was a moment when, listing the various malt manufacturers in his patch, it sounded as if he may have copied out his speech from the Yellow Pages. Mr Zahawi was more circumspect, and declined to read out a complete list of the Bard's works, though, since he was talking about the Queen's Speech, he could have mentioned Much Ado About Nothing.
Toothy Panda spoke fluently, and managed to tick off most of Labour's current stock of catch-phrases, some of which are less bewhiskered now than partially decomposed. He even squeezed in the line about there being more pandas in Scotland than Tory MPs, which was brave of him, being so close to home. "This Government stands up for the wrong people", Mr Miliband declared, sitting down. Posh Major had a good joke (how, when the Chief Whip had told him he had picked Nadhim to move the loyal address, he thought he had said Nadine) and then a lot of stuff about taking the tough decisions and staying the course, which is what prime ministers always say who have just been stuffed in the polls. There was though one brief, uplifting, passage, when Mr Cameron set out all the many excellent things his administration had done for the country. The country turned out to be Afghanistan, but you can't have everything.
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