Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Knock Knock

Today was the State opening of Parliament, an annual event wrapped in nearly as much tradition and ceremony as the selection of a Pope or a Freemason beer bash. The headline of this post refers to the day's duty of the Black Rod, a House of Lords officer equivalent to the Sergeant-at-Arms of the House or Senate, who must summon the Commoners by knocking at the door of their chamber and, ceremonially, have it slammed in his face to ceremonially signal the Commoners' actual independence of the hoi-polloi in Lords. That's only a bit of the ceremony. Wikipedia:
First, the cellars of the Palace of Westminster are searched in order to prevent a modern-day Gunpowder Plot. The Plot of 1605 involved a failed attempt by English Catholics to blow up the Houses of Parliament and kill the Protestant King James I and aristocracy. Since that year, the cellars have been searched, but for the sake of form only.

Before the monarch departs her residence, the Crown takes a member of the House of Commons to Buckingham Palace as a ceremonial hostage. This is to guarantee the safety of the Sovereign as she enters a possibly hostile Parliament. Today, with the convention that the majority of the government is drawn from the Commons, the symbolism becomes rather confused - the chosen hostage is usually the Vice-Chamberlain of the Household who, being a member of Her Majesty's Government, it can be assumed would not be hostile. The hostage is released upon the safe return of the Queen.


The Sergeant-at-Arms picks up the ceremonial mace and, with the Speaker, leads the Members of the House of Commons as they walk, in pairs, towards the House of Lords. By custom, the members saunter, with much discussion and joking, rather than formally process. The Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition usually walk side by side, leading the two lines of MPs. The Commons then arrive at the Bar of the House of Lords (no person who is not a member of the Upper House may pass the Bar unbidden when it is in session; a similar rule applies to the Commons), where they bow to The Queen. They remain at the Bar for the speech.

At that point, the holder of the world's second-oldest monarchy, in a monotone, reads a pre-written speech outlining the goals of the elected government. But without the ceremony, it wouldn't be Britain.

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