Last Wednesday I sat beneath the dome of St Paul’s for the ceremonial funeral of Margaret Thatcher and in less than a fortnight I will be in Westminster for the State Opening of Parliament.
These formal occasions will have a significant difference: the difference between ‘ceremonial’ and ‘State’.
According to last week’s order of service as the bells chimed 11am guests should stand as the coffin arrived. At five to eleven I wondered if it would run as planned. On the stroke of 11am we stood as the bells began their chime, then the door creaked and we heard the pallbearers’ boots on the stone floor.
The same precision will bring the Queen to the House of Lords for the State Opening a week on Wednesday. The Queen will outline her government’s plans for the next session of Parliament. It is part of a tradition that sends a powerful message that in Britain we have a Head of State who is not a politician. The head of government becomes Prime Minister but not Head of State. This was illustrated by the way Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair left office. Political decisions, no more, no less. Politicians arrive in office and leave; it is our Monarch who provides continuity.
As Head of State it was right for the Queen to attend St Pauls. Margaret Thatcher was the first woman to hold the office of Prime Minister and is the Queen’s longest serving prime minister. But it was a politician’s funeral, not a State occasion.
There is a widespread acceptance that the Queen is above politics and whatever the policies outlined during the State Opening it will not affect how we view our Monarch. It’s a good system and long may it last.