An unnecessary ceremony?

Lord Norton

_45960043_-4When a new Speaker is elected by the Commons, the approbation of the monarch is required.  Rather than attend in person, the monarch conveys  that approbation through a royal commission.  MPs are summoned to the bar of the House of Lords and the commission – comprising the Lord Chancellor and the leaders of the parties (and the convenor of the cross-benchers) in the Lords – delivers the Queen’s confirmation.

When John Bercow was elected Speaker on 22 June, he and other MPs were summoned by Black Rod and crowded into the area below the bar.  The commissioners were sat in front of the throne, Jack Straw in his black robes and hat, looking like Judge Jeffreys about to send somone to the gallows, and the others in their ermine.  After the commission had been read, Jack Straw declared “Her Majesty’s royal allowance and confirmation of you, Sir, as Speaker of the House of Commons.”

While I am a greater supporter of ceremony where it has a purpose, I am not sure whether this ceremony is altogether necessary.   The election is one for the House of Commons and I doubt if MPs appreciate having to traipse all the way over to the Lords to crowd into the cramped space that is available.   It used to be the case that when a Bill received royal assent, Black Rod had to summon the Commons to attend the Lords to hear the announcement of that assent.  It interrupted business and MPs got fed up with it.  As a result, royal assent is now announced in each House without any great ceremony and without any interruption of business. 

There may be a case in the future for the approbation to be delivered by the Lord Chancellor in the Commons (given that he is now an MP), or – if the Lord Chancellor sits in the Lords – an MP who holds a position in the Royal Household.  Or is this too radical?  I also have ideas for reforming some aspects of the State Opening of Parliament!

11 comments for “An unnecessary ceremony?

  1. 05/07/2009 at 6:51 pm

    I did see this on TV. It seemed to me to be missing a pantomime horse. For a few minutes I wondered whether Monty Python had invaded Westminster, but no.

    What a laugh the young Jack Straw would have had in his student days if he could have seen himself that day!

    As for the State Opening, a good deal of parliamentary time might be saved if the Ceremony of the Home Office Shooting Itself in the Foot were to be built into it. All that time on the PCB Part 2 for a start.

    • Croft
      06/07/2009 at 9:25 am

      stephenpaterson: The ‘Home Office Shooting Itself in the Foot’ could be incorporated into the ceremony. The Monarch could be handed the latest justice bill written on the back of a fag packet – as many of us already suspect some measures are announced when they are in roughly that level of policy development.

      Adrian Kidney: I agree with much of what you say but your comment that ‘Mr. Bercow, who didn’t have to confirm the rights of the House in the middle of a Parliament’ seems to point to the opposite. In the light of the Damian Green arrest we needed a declaration of the rights and privileges more than ever.

      As the speaker’s confirmation occurs only once very 8-10 years it hardly presents a time issue.

      • 06/07/2009 at 12:51 pm

        It would surely have to be a very large fag packet. King Size wouldn’t be in it. King Kong size, perhaps…

        I did have something more dramatic in mind involving a Kalashnikov. Still, I quite like Alan Johnson and I suppose he should be given a chance.

        You raise the interesting subject of the Damian Green arrest. Now I had always thought that an MP was immune from arrest for matters done in his/her capacity as an MP. Wasn’t there a lot of trouble over it in the past culminating in one of the Stuarts losing their heads?

        I was surprised and rather annoyed there wasn’t more of a fuss, especially from the Government front bench. Too many MPs and not enough parliamentarians, methinks.

        Still, I suppose if the Sin Fein MPs had started carting large boxes of Semtex into the place in the bad old days, some effective mechanism would have had to be found to deal with the situation.

        Perhaps having all police officers within the precincts under the direct control of the Sergeant at Arms?

        And all this over Home Office leaks. The lengths Jacqui Smith would go to to avoid forking out 88p for a plug!

  2. Matthew
    05/07/2009 at 9:40 pm

    I don’t know – it’s a ceremony that happens very infrequently, so it’s hardly a great interruption to business on a regular basis like the royal assent it.

  3. Adrian Kidney
    05/07/2009 at 10:28 pm

    I am also in favour of ceremony except where it intrudes into business. As you point out, Lord Norton, the interruptions to inform of Royal Assent have been removed and it’s a less monumental affair. I support a move like that.

    However, when it comes to election of the Speaker, I don’t think the same argument applies, as normally the House reserves a whole day to the business of electing the Speaker. The approbation is then done in the Lords, and they all then clear off, much like they do for prorogation and opening of Parliament.

    I see ceremony as constructing a narrative of the Constitution. This is why we have the Opening (to show the historical alignment of British society into Crown, Lords and Commons) and the prorogation (same reason). I think the Approbation is just as important, as it narrates how the Commons wrested its rights and privileges from the Crown and the Speaker, upon every new Parliament, asks the Queen to reaffirm those hard-won rights.

    While there may be a few Bennites who might grumble and say things about class or reverse snobbery, I think, if it serves a useful narrative for our unwritten constitution, it should stay. Of course, it could be sensible to remove it for incidents like Mr. Bercow, who didn’t have to confirm the rights of the House in the middle of a Parliament. In this case, perhaps your proposal regarding the Lord Chancellor would suffice.

  4. ladytizzy
    05/07/2009 at 10:40 pm

    The status of Speaker needs to be confirmed by the monarch – without the ceremony, why bother with the Crown?

  5. Blue
    06/07/2009 at 9:41 am

    I think we should be looking at changing the method of election again, if i’m honest. Effectively, a whole day of Commons business was ‘wasted’ by an election that dragged on for the whole day.

    • 07/07/2009 at 12:01 am

      Nothing wrong with the method, I think, just the approach. Between Michael Martin’s notice of resignation and the election there was much time. Two of three days for candidates to decide whether to stand, then hustings could have been held early on, and votes and counts carried out from day to day in the background rather than suspending the Commons for an entire day specially. Not rocket science.

  6. baronessmurphy
    07/07/2009 at 11:39 am

    I have now witnessed several Royal Commissions like the one we had for the new Speaker and have had serious problems keeping a straight face. I just think the whole business is utterly hilarious and liable to generate fits of uncontrollable giggles. If there is a serious constitutional purpose then lets do it in a suitably serious fashion fit for this century. But I just love Croft and stephenpaterson’s comments on this one.

  7. Alexander
    08/07/2009 at 8:25 pm

    A general comment on ceremony and ritual:
    In thinking about change and development in ritual and ceremony might I draw your attention to the substantial body of research on this subject in anthropology. Theory has now reached the stage where it can make predictions which are empirically testable. An overview of the state of research is given in a collection of essays edited by Kreinrath [Theorizing Rituals: Issues, Topics, Approaches, Concepts; Jens Kreinrath, Jan Snoek, and Michael Stausberg (Editors); Pub: Brill; Leiden; Boston 2006]. In particular the essay by Schiefflin [Edward L. Schiefflin Participation; pp. 615 – 625; ibid] explains the manner in which dramatic ceremony can create a state of deep focus even for uncommitted observers. As Schiefflin points out (p. 622), this should not come as a surprise. Public relations companies are frequently paid to achieve just such an effect. In short ceremony can alter the way people think even when they regard themselves as uncommitted observers of the ceremony.
    In the context of parliament it seems appropriate to ask what the true effect of ceremony is. In particular, is it not possible that the ceremonies that have developed and lasted serve to inculcate in parliamentarians habits of thought which accept limitations on their powers. Put another way, might it not be that apparently meaningless ceremony is constitutionally important?

  8. lordnorton
    10/07/2009 at 11:27 am

    Thanks for all the copmments. I was pleased that it generated a discussion between readers. I thought it may be appropriate to make some general observations in response. I was not suggesting that there should not be a ceremony, nor that a new Speaker should not receive the monarch’s approbation. I think there is a value in ceremony that reminds holders of public office that they owe a duty to the state, represented by the figure of the monarch in whom the Crown vests. My point was that this may not be the most appropriate form for the ceremony to take. I appreciate that it is not a frequent event, so not something requiring quick action or lost sleep. Some thought, though, may be given to utilising a different medium for giving royal approbation.

Comments are closed.