Mothballing the constitution

THE whiff of mothballs was overwhelming.

At the State Opening of Parliament MPs are summoned to the House of Lords by an official quaintly called Black Rod.

He leads the Speaker and Party Leaders on the short walk down to the Lords, where the scene that greets those MPs who can squeeze in, appears to have leapt straight out of the pages of a history book.

The Queen sits on a golden throne in full regalia with the Duke of Edinburgh at her side. Peers of the realm are gathered in red robes trimmed with ermine.

Ambassadors (I presume) sit resplendent in full national costume, and aristocratic ladies perch on the red benches in antique evening gowns, jewels and tiaras; and its still only 11.30 in the morning.

At the back the scruffy louche members of the Commons mutter veiled republican oaths under their breaths, as the Lord Chancellor in his wig, robes and silk stockings mounts the steps to the golden throne. He bows as he presents the Queen with the open book containing her speech. ‘Here are the wallpaper samples Your Majesty' mutters one waggish MP.

Meanwhile, a mile away, one of our number is being held hostage at Buckingham Palace. Not a real hostage like the incredibly courageous Peter Shaw from Cowbridge, who was held in a hole in the ground for 4 months in Georgia.

Our hero is a pantomime hostage dressed in tails and top hat, held at the Palace to ensure the safe return of the Queen. After all, the Commons did once chop off the monarch's head.

The Queen reads out the speech written for her by the government, and good stuff it is too. Laws to crack down on anti-social behaviour, to restore the balance in the criminal justice system towards victims of crime, and for Wales, more say for patients in the running of the NHS.

She reads on detailing more of the government's plans for a wide range of reforms. Then she leaves in her horse drawn State coach to return to her Palace.

This is how, in the year 2002, our democratically elected government announces its programme to the country. Except that we've already read about it in the papers.

Perhaps this is all of deep symbolic significance; a vitally important pageant which reasserts out traditional parliamentary liberties. Perhaps it is just a harmless pantomime which makes us feel good and pulls in the tourists.

But on a day when a firefighter's strike began and when war could be around the corner, it seemed a strange anachronistic spectacle for a modern parliament to set before the public.

There are times when the whiff of mothballs from our constitution is as powerful as the odour wafting from the noble gladrags of the great and not so good gathered on their Lordships' benches.