What a lesson in double subordination the State Opening of Parliament presents. We see the Queen, forced to read whatever words her ministers write for her. Yet we also see the politicians silenced and humbled in the presence of their sovereign.
The most interesting face belonged to her Prime Minister. Television reveals expressions which would be impossible to detect by any other method, for David Cameron was one of many figures in the crowd of MPs, half hidden below the dark and heavy wood of the gallery which crosses the far end of the House of Lords from the throne.
The cameras showed that Cameron looked chastened. His face might be called, without exaggeration, drawn. One supposes he is still very tired: even those of us with minor roles in the election campaign have yet to recover from it. And after he has spoken in the Commons this afternoon (an event which will be sketched for ConHome), he will spend the next couple of days on an appallingly extensive tour of European capitals.
His expression was that of a man who knows he has won, by his election victory, a great opportunity, but who knows it could all very easily go wrong. Cockiness, complacency, over-confidence, unexpected events, sloppy staff work, misconceived and over-ambitious ventures, a failure to concentrate on the things which matter to the wider public, a tendency to be distracted by things which matter very much to some Tories, an inability (accentuated by tiredness) to refrain from getting infuriated by Alex Salmond: these are among the most obvious dangers, and Cameron’s demeanour suggested he realises this.
But let us not pretend this was an entirely solemn occasion. We were presented with the marvellous spectacle of Michael Gove as Lord Chancellor. Gove is 47 years old, but conducted himself as an octogenarian. How stiffly and slowly he moved, and with what difficulty he knelt as he passed the speech to the Queen. Here was a old man, with a very severe haircut and almost certainly afflicted by gout, who was certainly not going to commit himself to the rash manoeuvre of backing down the steps in order not to turn his back on his sovereign. If Gove had done that, he could easily have fallen and broken a hip. How relieved we were to see this venerable figure taking proper care to avoid a nasty accident.
The desire to avoid a nasty accident explains the decision to “bring forward proposals for a British Bill of Rights”, but not rush into passing one. That matter is too dangerous to be rushed.
The Queen’s Speech served as a reminder to the Government about the course it must steer in order to deserve re-election in five years’ time. It must “adopt a One Nation approach”. Like most expressions coined by Disraeli, and taken up by Baldwin, One Nation contains a large element of flexibility. It means, certainly, social reform, but for Disraeli at least, national greatness was more important. One Nation Toryism is the most inclusive form of British nationalism.
On 9th September this year, the Queen will overtake Disraeli’s beloved sovereign, Victoria, and become the longest-reigning monarch in this island’s history. It is an astonishing achievement, and another of the ways in which she cuts, most satisfactorily, our politicians down to size.