The main event in Parliament this week has been the State Opening of Parliament by Her Majesty The Queen. Having watched this tremendous occasion on television many times I wondered how different it would be witnessing events from my position as a Member of the House of Commons.
Proceedings for the Commons started as they do every day with prayers. This part of the day is the only part that is not filmed and the prayers are led by the Chaplain who enters the Chamber with the Speaker. Prayers also plays a role in determining who sits where in the Chamber. I have been asked many times if I have been allocated a specific seat in the House. The answer is that you are not given a specific seat. Where you sit depends on whether you have been into the Chamber early enough to reserve your place for prayers. The Chamber opens at 8am and you can then go into the Chamber and reserve your seat by writing your name on a small green card and placing it in the cardholders on the back of the green leather benches. Then you have to be in your reserved place when prayers take place and if you are you can then keep that seat for the rest of the day. If you reserve a place but are not in your place for prayers you lose your seat. The other interesting point about prayers is that all Members turn to face the wall when prayers are said. The reason for this as with so many things in the Palace of Westminster lies in history. In the days when Members of Parliament attended the Chamber wearing their swords as they could not kneel down for prayers facing forwards because their swords would get stuck on the leather benches they solved the problem by turning to face the wall and kneeling on the benches. Incidentally each member has a coat hangar in the cloakroom and on he coat hangar is a piece of pink ribbon in order to hang up your sword – I have not used mine yet mind you nor for that matter I have used the coat hangar!
So, back to the State Opening I was in my place on the back row just to the right of the gangway (since the first day I have moved to the left of the gangway when viewed from where I am sitting) and the first thing that happens is that Black Rod appears with the command that Her Majesty requires the attendance of Members of the House of Commons in the House of Peers. Prior to his entrance the doors of the House of Commons are shut as he approaches to signify the independence of the House of Commons. Black Rod knocks on the door and is then admitted. All of this is recorded on camera for the nation to see but is all hidden from view when you are on the backbenches.
The Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition ( this year as Labour have no Leader at present the Acting Leader led the Labour M.P.’s ) then lead all those M.P.’s who wish to go up the corridor that links the two Houses. I guess the Prime Minister must have reached the House of Lords before I had even set off. When I did arrive at the entrance to the House of Lords the numbers already there were so great that I could see nothing in any event the speech was nearly over and so I watched the last part on a television monitor outside the House of Lords. We then proceeded back to the House of Commons where all that happened was that the Speaker passed his chair and we all dispersed until the opening of the debate on the Queen’s Speech at 2.30pm. As is often the case with big events I have to say that you probably see more on the television than you do from being there. What you miss on the television is the sense of history and tradition that runs through this most spectacular of Parliamentary occasions.