The state opening of parliament plays to nostalgia and reinforces inequality

By Jill Segger
May 25, 2010

The content of the Queen's speech is easily accessed in a digital age. The 23 Bills which it unveiled will be analysed and debated at length in the coming days and weeks. But the unspoken symbolism of the state opening of parliament itself has much to say to us at a time when the political wind is blowing for reform and the re-ordering of power.

A Roundhead to my bones, I find the whole display bizarre, embarrassing and disturbing in its reinforcement of the iconography of power and privilege and of the shameless exploitation of sentiment to bolster the delusion that it is both the guardian and manifestation of a confident democracy

The Cinderella coach, the cavalry troopers accoutred as 19th century Hussars, various heralds and flunkeys got up like the playing cards in Alice in Wonderland, the trumpet fanfares and all the royal finery are designed to appeal to a nostalgic sense of a 'golden age' of British 'greatness' and self-congratulation: “We do this kind of thing better than anyone else in the world”. The comparison is otiose – other modern democracies generally choose simpler and more egalitarian rites to dignify their elected assemblies.

What we have seen today is not even 'traditional' in the way its defenders would have us believe. Like so much royal pageantry, it is largely a late Victorian and Edwardian construct, designed to bolster the status of a monarchy which had become unpopular during Victoria's long retreat into mourning. It plainly consolidates inequality and identifies military power with nationhood and emotional identity. Why does the 89 year-old consort of the monarch wear the dress uniform of an Admiral of the Fleet if not for that purpose?

The idea of an hereditary head of state is as absurd as that of an hereditary dentist. And by acquiescing in the semi-religious trappings which go with the exalted 'otherness' of a monarch, we diminish our own dignity and that of a society of democratic citizens. As long as this quasi-mystical status of our head of state requires elected officials to walk backwards in her presence and have that presence announced to the assembled Commons as one of 'majesty', we are, despite the symbolism of the door closed in the face of Black Rod and the ritual irreverence of Dennis Skinner, more the heirs of servitude than of democracy.

If we must have a monarch, there is much to admire in Elizabeth Windsor. She has been a model of constitutional propriety for as long as most of us can remember. How much more worthy of admiration she could become if she were able to forgo all the militaristic parping and flummery and travel to a new session of the democratic legislature in a plain car, wearing ordinary clothes and escorted by her civilian husband in a morning suit. Better still, she might eschew the scarlet and gold of the chamber which is still the preserve of birth and patronage to deliver the government's programme in the chamber of the elected House.

That really would be a symbol of a confident, modern democracy.

Keywords:parliament | monarchy
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