Image: Queen Elizabeth II, Prince Philip
Shaun Curry  /  pool via AFP - Getty Images
Britain's Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip leave after her speech at the State Opening of Parliament in London on Wednesday.
updated 12/3/2008 6:28:06 PM ET 2008-12-03T23:28:06

Hard times have hit Britain, but you wouldn't know it by watching Queen Elizabeth II open Parliament.

Banks are reeling, venerable retail chains are shutting down and jobs are being lost, but these harsh truths did not impinge on the most important ceremonial event of the British calendar on Wednesday.

There was the beautifully coifed queen, purple crown ablaze with nearly 3,000 diamonds, attended by ladies-in-waiting and pages. The woman who last week advised the royal family to be less flashy during an economic downturn, according to the Daily Telegraph, arrived in the horse-drawn Irish State Coach, her way cleared by a Household Cavalry escort, then ascended her golden throne to read out her government's plan.

She listed fewer legislative proposals than expected — adding to speculation that Prime Minister Gordon Brown plans to call a general election sooner rather than later — and focused on ways to protect low-income families from the impact of the economic slowdown, curb crime, and check illegal immigration.

It was an elegant game of charades, with everyone playing a role delineated by centuries of tradition.

Ceremony of tradition
For starters, there was the spectacle of the queen reading a speech she had no hand in preparing, announcing a government agenda she played no part in crafting because the monarch is not allowed to get involved in politics.

Then there was the way the Yeomen of the Guard, the oldest unit of the royal guards, searched the cellars of the Palace of Westminster before the queen's speech, acknowledging the Gunpowder Plot that threatened the monarchy at the opening of Parliament in 1605.

The largely ceremonial task is to make sure that no one is stockpiling explosives in the basement with an eye toward blowing up Parliament.

The queen's actual speech is given in the magisterial House of Lords, the upper house of Parliament, because the monarch has not been allowed in the lower chamber, the House of Commons, since King Charles I tried to arrest legislators in 1642 shortly before England's Civil War.

Lawmakers are summoned from the Commons by an elaborately costumed official known as Black Rod — but only after they slam the door in his face to symbolize their independence.

In another theatrical touch that symbolizes the traditional hostility between the Commons and the crown, a junior government functionary is each year held "hostage" at Buckingham Palace until the queen returns safely.

Glamour and glitter
For viewers watching the event — it is televised live on Britain's major news channels — the screen seemed to glitter as the queen spoke.

Along with the Imperial State Crown, she also wore the Garter collar — think more diamonds — and a parliamentary robe with a long train carried by four youthful pages.

Not to be outdone, her husband Prince Philip arrived in the full naval dress uniform of an Admiral of the Fleet, including his many medals and a sword.

The queen's jewels, including the crown, are so precious they are usually kept in a heavily guarded room at the Tower of London. They travel to parliament in their own special coach.

Late on the night before the event, there are usually elaborate rehearsals by the cavalry units involved — a phenomenon that has been known to startle revelers who don't expect to find hundreds of horsemen in formation when they leave the pub.

Brown's future
Brown, meanwhile, is staking his political future on attempts to help low-income families cope with the financial crisis, crack down on minor crime and restrict illegal immigration.

From early next year, he will offer help to people at risk of foreclosure, allowing some struggling Britons to defer part of their mortgage interest payments for up to two years.

Critics claim the measure is aimed at helping Brown keep his own home — the prime minister's official residence at No. 10 Downing Street.

"This is all about the prime minister's short-term future, not the long-term future of the country," opposition Conservative Party chief David Cameron said, responding to the queen's speech in a debate.

"Will he get on and call an election so the people can put this government out of its misery?" Cameron asked.

Setting out Brown's plans in her annual speech, the queen said Britain will press for a Mideast peace settlement, look for new ways to curb Iran's nuclear program and introduce new laws to promote equality, including affirmative action.

But the "government's overriding priority is to ensure the stability of the British economy during the global economic downturn," the queen said, speaking from a gilded throne following an opulent procession from Buckingham Palace.

The queen, who has no role in drafting the legislative agenda, said other proposals include creating state-backed savings accounts and giving bank depositors more protection.

However, the speech contained only 15 proposed new laws, in contrast to 28 last year — fueling speculation that Brown hopes to quickly conclude Parliament's business and call an early election.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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