Tuesday 13 November 2007

Not walking backwards for Christmas

I’m slightly hesitant about raising this week’s topic, after the mauling my new colleague Tom Gutteridge received in Voice of the North for being a terrible name-dropper. (Which, frankly, was a bit like complaining because the Pope wrote a column that kept mentioning religion.)

But here goes: I spent last Tuesday in the company of Her Majesty The Queen. Oh, all right: only a little bit of last Tuesday, and there were a couple of thousand other people there as well. A friend in the House of Lords (whoops, there I go again) kindly sent me an invitation to the State Opening of Parliament, and it would have been churlish not to show up.

The occasion has become so familiar from television that actually seeing the Queen in State, wearing her dazzling crown, no longer has the impact that the “shock and awe” strategy of Majesty must have had when it was devised by Henry VIII. No-one fell spontaneously to their knees; indeed I was surprised by how few of the spectators in the Royal Gallery felt the need to bow or curtsy as their Sovereign passed by.

Even more shockingly to me, the Earl Marshal and Lord Great Chamberlain no longer perform their world-famous party trick of walking backwards; an ancient tradition which survived the Blairite streamlining of the ceremony in 1998, but was apparently quietly abandoned in 2003.

Still, it was undoubtedly impressive. Unforgettable, even. Which is saying something given that my brain has been full and failing to register most experiences for at least a decade.

I wish the same could be said for the Gracious Speech. This used to include quite a lot of stuff pertaining to the duties of the Queen herself, such as making and receiving State Visits, plus an overview of international affairs. The inaugural speech of the Brown era was true to form in being monstrously dull and containing absolutely nothing new. Written in short, staccato sentences like a Sun editorial, it was largely concerned with domestic “aspirations”.

At a time when Her Majesty’s forces are engaged in two wars, the fact that they received no mention whatsoever seemed little short of amazing. Wondering whether this was some long-established convention, I looked up the speech that the Queen’s father made to open Parliament in November 1942. Then, the exploits of “My Army, Navy and Air Force” featured prominently. Comparing it with the 2007 version was like trying to find similarities between Shakespeare’s Henry V and an Ant and Dec script.

In the intervening years, we have surrendered not only an Empire and our place among the Great Powers, but all meaningful independence across huge areas of national life. The Parliament that was opened in such style now amounts to little more than a glorified parish council, rubber-stamping instructions from Brussels.

The question is: how did this come about in my lifetime without anyone ever asking whether it was what we wanted? We have had long and furious debates about frankly trivial things like foxhunting, yet massive changes in the very nature of the country proceed apparently inexorably.

At the beginning of her Speech, the Queen announced her Government’s intention “to entrust more power to Parliament and the people”. Towards the end, she said that “Legislation will be brought forward to enable Parliament to approve the European Union Reform Treaty”. So, whatever power may be heading our way, we certainly aren’t going to be allowed to decide on anything important, even if that means reneging on an explicit promise.

No wonder politics is so discredited. The truly radical modernisation would be to let the Prime Minister tell his own lies in future. Then the Queen could make a speech of her own, sharing some of the wisdom she has accumulated in 55 years as Head of State. And if there’s any shortage of people willing to walk backwards before you, Ma’am, The Journal has my phone number.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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