Today, King Charles delivered his first speech from the throne as monarch, outlining the government’s plans and priorities for the year ahead. Nevertheless, whether he approved of it or not, he had no influence over the content of the address he conveyed to the Lords and Members of Parliament.

T oday, King Charles gave his first speech from the throne as monarch. He delivered the queen’s speech once as Prince of Wales, deputising in May 2022 for his mother, who could not attend. This was the first speech by a king since 1951, though on that occasion, King George VI was too ill to attend and the speech was read out by the Lord Chancellor.

Charles III’s first King’s speech.

Who writes the king’s speech, and why does it matter?

The king’s speech is the central part of the ceremony marking the state opening of parliament.

At the start of each parliamentary session, the monarch goes – in a state coach and escorted by the household cavalry – to the House of Lords, accompanied by the crown as a symbol of his royal authority. There, he reads out a speech outlining the government’s plans and priorities for the year ahead.

Although it is known as the king’s speech, it is actually written by the government, for the monarch. In 1964, an irreverent Private Eye cover had Queen Elizabeth II reading the speech while saying: “I hope you realise I didn’t write this crap.”

The speech and the ceremony are a reminder of the constitutional relationship of crown and government. Although political power rests with the prime minister and cabinet, there is nevertheless a layer of authority above them.

What happens at the speech?

The tradition of a king’s speech has its origins in the medieval parliament, but the speech from the throne as we know it today first evolved in the late 17th century, when parliament finally established its power over the monarch.

Much of the modern ritual is a Victorian concoction. The monarch sits on the royal throne in the House of Lords – the upper house. Members of parliament are imperiously summoned by a royal official known as the gentleman usher of the black rod (though the office is currently held by a woman, and so: the lady Usher of the black rod). No seats are provided for MPs, so they have to crowd into an inadequate space at the back.

Meanwhile, the door of the Commons is slammed in black rod’s face as a reminder of the independence of the Commons. And that, ever since 1642, when Charles I entered the chamber with armed men in a foiled attempt to arrest five MPs, the House of Commons is the one place in the realm where the monarch is not allowed to step.

MPs amble informally down to the upper house to show they are going because they choose to, not because they are summoned, and the speech they are to hear is the work of the government, not the king. It’s political theatre.

What if the monarch disagrees with the speech?

Whatever his private feelings, the monarch must not show any overt preference for any political party, so the speech is always read in as neutral a tone as possible. Sometimes the speech might include current acronyms or technical terms which sit strangely with the glittering jewellery and gold on display, but the monarch must read it all, giving nothing away either by tone of voice or facial expression.

The monarch has the right to advise, warn and encourage the prime minister on policy. In return he must always follow the prime minister’s advice and he must read the prime minister’s speech.

This means that a monarch might solemnly read out a speech written by one party, and, a year later, if there has been a change of government, equally solemnly read out a speech outlining a completely different programme and written by their opponents.

What about this year’s king’s speech?

The grand ceremonial of the state opening has sometimes been scaled down, in wartime or if the economic situation suggests tactful restraint. This is something the king himself has to gauge, with advice from the government.

The speech was the first indication of the government’s legislative priorities for the year ahead with reference to housing and the cost of living crisis, and to the ongoing crises in Gaza and Ukraine. The speech also included bills related to the prime minister’s pro-motorist plans, a gradual smoking ban and leasehold reform.

After the speech, the monarch made an equally ceremonial departure and MPs shuffled off back to the Commons where they began a debate, which normally lasts a week. This is called a humble address to the monarch, thanking him for his gracious speech, but in reality, offering MPs a chance to support or attack the government for its now-public list of intentions. And so normal politics resumes.

PMP Magazine


Text: This piece was originally published in The Conversation and re-published in PMP Magazine on 7 November 2023. | The author writes in a personal capacity.
Cover: UK Parliament. (Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.)
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