Letter from Westminster

The State Opening of Parliament is always one of the ceremonial extra­vaganzas of the parliamentary year and this year’s was no exception. What I had not appreciated, however, was that my recent appointment as government deputy chief whip would give me a role in it.

For reasons that may have made sense at some stage in history gov­ern­ment whips are also given titles in the royal household. I am, there­fore, not just Liberal Democrat chief whip and government deputy chief whip but also Comptroller of Her Majesty’s Household. It was a detail the full significance of which I had not fully appreciated when I took the telephone asking me to do the job.

Last Thursday, however, the reality of it started to dawn when, after a quick trip to Moss Bros for a morning suit, I had to make my way to Buckingham Palace to be present­ed with my wand of office by the Queen. The wand of office looks much like a snooker cue. Its original function I could only guess but it is now to be with me when carrying out my duties as a member of the royal household.

These duties apparently are to in­clude assisting the Queen at garden parties (although not, as I had origin­ally feared, to make the sandwiches) and on Tuesday involved being part of the procession at the State Open­ing. So bright and early on Tuesday morning, again in morning suit (this time with a top hat for good mea­sure), along with two colleagues from the government whips office I made my way to Buckingham Palace. Tradition demands that a hostage from the palace of Westminster should be held at Buckingham Palace while the Queen is in Parlia­ment. This is a very genteel form of hostage taking and involves the “hostage” drinking a cup of coffee with another senior member of the royal household while watching the ceremonial on television. The host­age, as it turned out, has it easy. We were then driven back to the Palace of Westminster in an open top horse-drawn carriage in a procession head­ed by the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh.

After nine years in parliament I have become accustomed to being in the public eye. It goes with the territory. Being driven down The Mall in a carriage, dressed in a morning suit and wearing a top hat takes that to a new level. To say that I felt conspicuous is something of an understatement. I can only imagine what the tourists lining the proces­sion thought I was there for. The irony that this is a situation in which I found myself as a consequence of my part in what we are calling the “new politics” is probably so obvious as not to require stating.

Did I enjoy it? I can’t truthfully say that I relaxed enough for that but it was certainly an experience to remember and one about which to tell the grandchildren. If dressing up in morning suit and top hat and being driven in a carriage while carrying a stick is what is needed to bring change to our country then I guess it is a price worth paying. Time will tell.

Alistair Carmichael MP


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