The King’s Speech (formerly the Queen’s Speech from 1952 to 2022) takes place annually in the Palace of Westminster during the State Opening of Parliament. It is one of the show piece events of the British state. It involves the sitting monarch arriving and addressing Parliament and all of the ancient symbolism of the British State is on show. However, beyond this ceremony, the speech has a important constitutional function. So what happens during the King’s Speech and why is it an important constitutional moment each year?
What happens during the State Opening of Parliament?
The State Opening of Parliament is the point that formally marks the beginning of a new Parliamentary Session. Prior to the Monarch arriving, the cellars of the Palace of Westminster are searched. This is now a ceremonial task, but it dates back to the 5th November 1605 when Guy Fawkes attempted to kill King James I at the State Opening of Parliament by placing gunpowder in the cellars. Then, the Monarch will arrive at the Sovereign’s Entrance, normally after a horse-drawn procession from Buckingham Palace. The Monarch will then make their way to the robing room to put on the regalia of state.
The Monarch will then walk in a procession to the throne of the House of Lords where they will take their seat.
Following this, Black Rod will be sent to summon the members of the House of Commons to the House of Lords. At this point an important example of constitutional symbolism takes point. As Black Rod approaches the chamber of the House of Commons, they have the door theatrically slammed in their face. This is to symbolise the independence of the House of Commons from the House of Lords and is done in remembrance of the fact that in 1641 Charles I stormed into the House of Commons in order to arrest five members of Parliament.
Famously, the former republican Labour MP for Bolsover, Dennis Skinner, had a reputation for making a quip at the expense of Black Rod (and the Monarch), before keeping his seat in the Commons and refusing to attend to the Monarch.
MPs then walk to the Lords Chamber to hear the address by the Monarch. Traditionally, Conservative and Labour MPs walk in pairs with their counterpart in a show of bipartisanship in front of the Monarch. This can lead to some awkward small talk between some people who wouldn’t normally be keen in each other’s company. The MPs then hear the King’s Speech read out to them.
What is the King’s Speech?
The King’s Speech is the speech that is read out from the throne in the House of Lords. However, whilst it is called the King’s Speech, it is written by the government and the Monarch has no input into it. The speech lays out the legislative plans of the government for the upcoming Parliamentary session.
What is the constitutional significance of the King’s Speech?
The delivery of the King’s Speech is a theatrical event. However, it has a wider constitutional significance.
Following the speech, there will be five days of debate on it. During this time there will be no other parliamentary business unless it is deemed unexceptional (for example an emergency bill relating to Northern Ireland being passed in 2006). There will also be votes held on it. This is important because votes on the King’s Speech are treated as confidence motions. If a government cannot produce a majority in the House of Commons on the King’s Speech, it will not be see as having the confidence of the House of Commons and this could force the resignation of the government and a new general election. Consequently, all votes on the King’s Speech are given a three-line whip by the Government.
As a result of the strong majorities that First Past the Post usually creates in the House of Commons it is very unlikely a government will lose a vote on the speech. The last time this happened was in January 1924 when Stanley Baldwin’s minority government were defeated by 328-251 on an amendment to the King’s Speech. Baldwin subsequently resigned and a General Election was held.
Therefore, beyond the pomp and ceremony of the event, the King’s speech has some important constitutional importance:
- It lays out the government’s agenda for the year, making it clear to Parliament and the public.
2. It allows the opposition to outline their positions on the issues in the Speech, allowing for bipartisanship or the setting out of a clear alternative to the electorate.
3. It tests the confidence of the House of Commons in the government. Should a government lose a vote on the King’s Speech, they will be forced to resign.
The State Opening of Parliament is one of the showpiece events of the British Calendar. However, it does have an important constitutional significance, most notably outlining the legislative plans of the government and allowing the Opposition to showcase the alternative approach that they might take.
King’s Speech – The yearly speech given by the Monarch that outlines the legislative plans of the Government.
State Opening of Parliament – A yearly event in which the Monarch formally opens Parliament for its next session.
Parliamentary Session – A parliamentary session is a period of Parliament (normally about a year) during which the Government will attempt to pass a set amount of legislation.
Black Rod – Formally the ‘Usher of the Black Rod’ plays a key ceremonial role in the State Opening of Parliament whereby they act as the Lords messenger to the Commons . However, beyond that, they have an important role maintaining security within the House of Lords.