The UK Parliament opened on Monday after Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s attempt to suspend the legislature was struck down by the Supreme Court. It opened with Queen Elizabeth II’s speech. The ceremony is called State Opening of Parliament marking the beginning of new legislative year.
There is nothing unusual about it as the same pattern is followed in almost every parliamentary democracy. What sets the British ceremony apart is a bizarre tradition in which a high-ranking Member of Parliament (MP) is taken hostage by the Royal Guards to ensure that the monarch – the Queen in the present case – stays safe during her speech in Parliament and returns to the royal palace unharmed.
This year, Stuart Andrew, an influential member of the House of Commons (comparable with the Lok Sabha of Indian Parliament) was taken hostage while Queen Elizabeth delivered her 65th State Opening speech.
Howsoever strange it may sound to someone not aware of this tradition, it still continues in Britain where the monarch is only ceremonial and does not really face any threat from parliamentarians.
The origin of this practice of taking hostage an MP has its origin in two incidents in British history – an assassination plot on King James I in 1605 and beheading of King Charles I in 1649.
In the first incident – famously known as the Gunpowder plot – an attempt was made on King James’s life by a group of fanatic English Catholics. The plotters had hidden gunpowder in the cellars that was enough to blow up the House of Commons and as well as the House of Lords.
Since then, the practice of searching the cellars of the Palace of Westminster marks the beginning of a lengthy process of State Opening ceremony. Cellars were searched on Monday as well before Queen Elizabeth set out for Westminster from her Buckingham Palace.
The second incident related to a civil war between Parliament and the monarch that took an ugly turn after King Charles I tried to arrest five MPs on treason charge by forcefully entering the House of Commons in 1642. Seven years later, Parliament decisively registered its supremacy and King Charles was executed on the charge of treason.
Since then an MP is taken hostage to ensure that the monarch returns to Buckingham Palace safely. MP Stuart Andrew was taken hostage in the royal palace this year.
The heavy imperial crown is brought to the Westminster as part of the State Opening ceremony. Queen Elizabeth has, however, shunned wearing the crown in recent years due to its weight and her advancing age.
Once the Queen sits in her throne in the House of Lords, the Black Rod — the top security officer for the ceremony — is instructed to call the members of the House of Commons to the House of Lords. The MPs of the House of Commons can enter the House of Lords only after the Black Rod opens the gate. This year’s ceremony was also unique in the sense that it was for the first time that a woman – Sarah Clark — was the Black Rod in 650 years.
No British monarch has entered the House of Commons after King Charles I. State Opening speech is delivered in the House of Lords.
The hostage MP is released once the monarch is back in the royal palace, and debate begins in the UK Parliament. This time, the debate is very intense as the deadline for Brexit is only a fortnight away and the Boris Johnson government has failed to strike a cushion deal with the European Union.