Wednesday, 3 December 2008

The New Session

The Queen opens the new session of Parliament this morning. Each session lasts for about one year - usually running from one November to the next. The only exceptions are when a session is ended early because a General Election is called, and the subsequent first session may be extended until the November in the year following the General Election.

This is the 54th Parliament of the United Kingdom. However unlike most legislatures - as with the US Congress [the 111th Congress will begin on 3rd January] - Parliaments are more usually referred to by the year of their election - so most people will call this the 2008-09 (or 4th) session of the 2005 Parliament.
State Openings of Parliament involve many references to history. The cellars of the Palace of Westminster are ceremonially searched by the Yeomen of the Guard led by the Deputy Chief Whip of the Lords (who has the title of the Captain of the Queen's Bodyguard of the Yeoman of the Guard). This relives the search which discovered Guy Fawkes in 1605. There will be a proper search undertaken by the police too.
When 'Black Rod' is sent by the Queen to summon the House of Commons, his approach to the House is marked by the slamming of the door in his face. Only after knocking three times is the door reopened to him. This is an assertion by the Commons of its independence - they initially refuse entrance to the Queen's messenger - and then when summoned amble over to the Lords, chatting loudly.
A hostage is held at Buckingham Palace pending the Queen's safe return. Normally this is the Vice Chamberlain of Her Majesty's household, one of the senior whips in the House of Commons (currently Claire Ward MP)
Graham Allen MP once described the experience to the BBC "I am also held hostage once a year when the Queen opens Parliament pending her safe return. If by some chance she is executed or spirited away by MPs, I have my head removed from the rest of my body. Fortunately, the two times I've been held hostage it hasn't happened. It is very onerous, I sit in a comfortable chair, drink a gin and tonic and eat sausages on sticks. I sit with the Queen's private secretary, the Duke of Edinburgh's private secretary and the Princess Royal's private secretary and various ladies in waiting and watch the Queen's Speech on television."
A pdf file on the State Opening is available at http://www.parliament.uk/documents/upload/HofLstateopening.pdf