28/01/2014 16:47 GMT | Updated 28/01/2014 18:59 GMT

The State Of The Union Versus The State Opening Of Parliament

Barack Obama addressing Congress (left) and the Queen addressing Parliament (right)

The State of the Union and the State Opening of Parliament – two often-tedious ceremonies watched through a haze of boredom made bearable only by the hope that a Tea Partier will start shouting about Kenya, or that Prince Phillip will fall off his chair.

There are plenty of similarities between the two occasions – both set out the political agenda for the coming year – but also many stark differences. Barack Obama will not, for example, be delivering his address from a gold throne. Likewise, Her Majesty will not be previewing her next speech on Instagram.

On Tuesday evening, President Obama will talk to a divided congress about the state of the American union, with the Queen scheduled to open Parliament sometime in May. Here’s how the two events stack up... and why the Opening of Parliament is just that little bit better.


Colonial rabble-rouser George Washington (1789-1797) delivered the first regular annual message before a joint session of Congress in January 1790 in New York City.

The tradition of the opening of Parliament dates back to the 14th century, with a 16th century picture showing Henry VIII (1509-1547) addressing peers in state robes, no doubt informing them of his intention to unsettle Europe's delicate balance over a fling.

Winner: Parliament

A very lithe Henry VIII in state robes

The Speech:

Delivering a speech to Congress dropped out of favour under the presidency of Thomas Jefferson (1801–1809) who preferred to send a letter. The tradition was resurrected by Woodrow Wilson (1913-1921) and carried on by Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933-1945). Obama continues in this custom, but there is nothing in the constitution that says he couldn’t just send an email.

Monarchs used to give an introduction - essentially deliver a warm-up act - for the Lord Chancellor who pulled out the big lines for the main political address. However, this changed after 1679 when Charles II (1660-1685) decided to keep the spotlight for himself, a tradition that has carried on for 334 years.

Winner: Parliament

Jefferson didn't like addressing Congress as it was too similar to the Monarch's speech


FDR’s speech in 1944 was the first to be broadcast live on the radio, with the first televised State of the Union taking place in 1947 under Harry Truman (1945-1953). Now, the event is live tweeted by everyone with a TV and a mobile phone.

Due to British establishment’s reluctance to embrace any form of modernity, neither radio microphones nor TV cameras were allowed into the Lords for the ceremony until 1958. Now the address draws in huge numbers from the twin demographics of political journalists and the unemployed.

Winner: Congress

Truman was the first President to have the TV cameras capture his speech


Both ceremonies require the taking of a hostage. In the US, the 'designated survivor' is chosen to watch the event from an undisclosed location just in case some Fawkes-like terrorist carries out a strike. The survivor is then left to take up the reins of government.

Before the monarch departs to the Lords, a member of the House of Commons is delivered up to Buckingham Palace to guarantee a safe return, just in case the Liberal Democrats decide throw a sack over the Queen an stick her in the back of Clegg’s Astra.

Winner: Tie

"Yeah - I've got her... now let's talk"


The Sargent at Arms introduces the State of the Union with the now iconic words "Mr. Speaker, the president of the United States." And that’s it…

Affairs in the UK are a little more complicated with the Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod, or just Black Rod to use his online chat name, summoning MPs to come to the Lords. As he approaches, the door is slammed in his face. He then strikes the door three times. The whole farrago is lent gravitas by Black Rod’s tights and buckles.

Winner: Parliament

The Parliamentary pantomime that is 'Black Rod'


During the 2009 State of the Union, congressman Joe Wilson threw a Tea Party temper tantrum by shouting out "you lie" twice during Obama’s address (Video below). He quickly apologised, having reduced his entire political career to a two-word bumper sticker.

There was mild controversy in 2013, when The Duchess of Cornwall attended her first State Opening and sat too close to the Queen. Royal watchers thought this was a clear message abut the prominent role Camilla will play in the future Monarchy, sending the all twelve members of Diana’s fan club (Tunbridge Wells chapter) into meltdown.

Winner: Congress

Photo gallery Unforgettable State of The Union Moments See Gallery