Charles gives first King’s Speech in 72 years amid parliamentary pomp

LONDON — King Charles III will wear a very heavy crown. Someone called Black Rod will have a door slammed in her face. A lawmaker will be held “hostage” by Buckingham Palace.

It’s the state opening of Parliament, that time of year when the British monarch announces the new laws on the government’s agenda, but because this is Britain, there is an elaborate ceremony steeped in ancient customs that may seem slightly confusing to the uninitiated.

It’s also the first time in over 70 years that a king will deliver the speech, an event made famous — at least for Americans — by the 2010 film starring Colin Firth as the wartime monarch King George VI overcoming a speech impediment. Since 1952, it’s been a queen doing the job, though Charles did stand in for his mother in 2022 because of her ill health.

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It’s also the first such event for Prime Minister Rishi Sunak — and he will be hoping it’s not his last. His Conservative Party is trailing badly in the polls, and an election must be held by January 2025.

The King’s Speech is read by the king sitting upon a gilded throne, but in this case, the monarch is just the messenger. The speech is written entirely by the government and is the moment when the prime minister shows what the ruling party’s priorities are. Because there’s a looming election, this speech will offer insight into how the Conservatives plan to campaign in the next election.

And so it is that Charles, a lifelong environmentalist, may find himself announcing legislation for a new system for awarding oil and gas licenses, which the government says is important for energy security. Environmental groups oppose the measure, saying that the United Kingdom should focus on renewables and that the move is an attempt to create a wedge issue with the opposition Labour Party.

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According to leaks in the British press, Charles, or rather the speech he has been given to read, will announce legislative reforms including a phased smoking ban to create a smoke-free generation; a new regulator for English soccer; greater powers for judges to compel convicted criminals to appear in the dock for their sentencing hearings; and mandatory jail terms for shoplifting.

The coming election means this will be one of the most political speeches in recent years. It’s possible that some of the proposals will never become laws because the Conservatives could run out parliamentary time. That also means the Conservatives could announce eye-catching policies that they hope will help them win over voters, even if they never become law.

The ceremony is a collection of centuries-old customs that recall a time when the relationship between the monarch and Parliament was a great deal more fraught. Before Charles arrives at Parliament, royal bodyguards will search its cellars for explosives — a reference to Guy Fawkes’s 1605 “gunpowder plot” — an unsuccessful attempt by English Catholics to blow up the Protestant King James I and Parliament.

The best known part of the ceremony is probably when Black Rod, a senior official in the House of Lords, knocks on the door to the House of Commons, only to see it slammed in her face — this is meant to symbolize the House of Commons’ independence from the monarch.

Undeterred by the frosty reception, Black Rod then bangs on the door three times with her ceremonial staff — there is a dent in the wall from the banging over the years — and the door to the House of Commons chamber is finally opened. Lawmakers then emerge and follow Black Rod to the House of Lords to hear the monarch’s speech.

In another tradition, inspired by the beheading of King Charles I in 1649, a lawmaker is held “hostage” at Buckingham Palace during the ceremony to guarantee the monarch’s safe return.

For his part, Charles will be wearing the Imperial State Crown, brought over especially from the Tower of London, and a crimson velvet robe, which he’ll put on in the Robing Room.

After the speech, lawmakers return to the House of Commons, where the normal cut and thrust of politics resume. Sunak and Labour leader Keir Starmer will lead a days-long debate over the legislative program outlined in the speech, ending with a vote.

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