Thursday, May 28, 2015

Sorry!: The Queen's Speech Debate > SOTU

The Queen arriving at the Sovereign Gate

When President Obama gives the State of the Union address, he goes up to Capitol Hill, is politely received, and drones on for about 60 to 75 minutes about what he plans to accomplish in the upcoming year. He is applauded frequently and often, especially by his party. When he’s done, he leaves the chamber and then, in some other place, Republicans air their response to the President’s proposals. It’s neat, it’s tidy, and it’s---boring.

At the State Opening of Parliament, it’s much more exciting. Multiple carriages enter through Sovereign’s Gate in the Victoria Tower carrying the State Crown, the Prince of Wales, and the Queen of England. Once the Queen arrives in the House of Lords, Black Rod—with great ceremony—approaches the House of Commons to request their presence in the Lords for the speech. The door is slammed on Black Rod initially, demonstrating that the Commons is independent of both the Lords and the Monarch, who is not allowed to enter the House of Commons. After knocking on the door with a staff, Black Rod enters and then the House of Commons proceeds to Lords to sit and listen to the Queen’s speech.

The Queen then addresses the packed Lords chamber and gives a speech—written by the Prime Minster and his government—outlining the legislative program for the year. The speech lasts about ten or fifteen minutes. The Queen departs, and later in the afternoon, the House of Commons and Lords meet to debate the contents of the speech over the next few days.

Today, on our last day in London, we went to Westminster to see the Queen arrive for the State Opening, watched the speech in a nearby pub, and then—thanks to the Speaker’s office, the British American Parliamentary Group, and the Commonwealth Parliamentary Group—we watched the House of Commons debate the Queen’s speech for an hour. We had front row seats in the distinguished visitor’s gallery, where we saw Alexander Salmon and his 55 SNP colleagues, former Lib Dem Leader Nick Clegg, Interim Labour Leader Harriet Harman, Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, and Prime Minister David Cameron.

Simon Burns, MP for Chelmsford
Traditionally, the debate leads off with two speeches from members of the governing party—one of whom proposes to accept the Queen’s speech and another who delivers a seconding address. MP Simon Burns from Chelmsford gave the first speech, and Sheryll Murray gave the seconding speech. Both speeches are supposed to be full of humor, as both these speeches were. After the proposal has been made and seconded, debate is opened by the main opposition party with the government’s response given by the Prime Minister. We witnessed this entire exchange before we left to attend a meeting with John Spellar.

My overwhelming reaction, aside from an amazing sense of awe and an enormous amount of geeking out over witnessing history unfolding before my very eyes, was one of sheer delight at personal and raucous nature of the whole affair. It was anything but boring. The speeches were at once funny, cutting, and serious. The chamber erupts in laughter, cheers, and groaning. It is lively and exciting—much more so than the President’s State of the Union address. I’m glad that I and my students got to see it up close and personal.

The Queen's Guard
After watching the debate, we met with an MP from the Labour Party, John Spellar. He said many interesting things to us during our time together, but it was an observation about the Queen’s speech that stuck out. He reminded us that the omissions in the speech are just as important as the contents. In this case, he noted that the omission of a proposal tackling changes in the Human Rights—an important campaign promise made by the conservatives during the campaign—hints at some of the early challenges Cameron faces with a slim majority and indicates a fault line with in the party that might cause the government headaches down the road. Add to that a campaign which purposely pitted England against Scotland in order to depress support for Labour, and one wonders how long the Tories can govern a nation restless over its future together.

But just as important, I think, is what the opposition party chose to accept in the government’s proposal, and that’s a referendum on the UK’s future within the European Union. That signaled to me, loud and clear, that Labour recognizes it has just as much of a problem with UKIP in the long term as the conservatives do. If Labour can’t hold onto the working class vote and confront fears over wages and immigration, Labour’s future will be dark indeed. 

Taking the long view, this past election may very well not only be a last gasp of union, but of the two main parties as well.

Meeting with MP John Spellar

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