On this day, marking the first Queen’s Speech delivered by a coalition government to Queen Elizabeth II, I take time to reflect on an earlier Queen’s Speech, when there was not so much a Coalition Government as a single-party state.
In the run up to the Crimean War, such was the popular demand for war, that all political parties effectively became one grand coalition, to which there was no official opposition of any significant sort. Although the official government was a Peelite-Whig coalition under Lord Aberdeen, one of the leading Peelites, it had such strong support from the Conservatives that many people asked if party politics was about to die.
Rather than dying, the government would collapse in 1855 following the disastrous War that was about to unfold and the return of two-party politics would return in force a decade later as the famous battles between Gladstone and Disraeli came to dominate the period.
When the coalition government of 1854 collapsed the following year, after much debate, Lord Palmerston formed his first government. Thanks to subsequent elections delivering ever larger majorities, the subsequent decade has been referred to by some as the Dictatorship of Lord Palmerston.
In an echo of today’s coalition government, Lord Palmerston began his parliamentary career as a Tory and ended it as a Liberal (an alliance of Whigs, Peelites, Radicals). He was also the last Prime Minister of the United Kingdom to die in office, which considering their respective ages, is probably an honour that Nick Clegg and David Cameron are happy to leave with him.
As a further echo of today’s Queen’s Speech which remarked on constitutional reform, the speech give by Queen Victoria in 1854 also talked of reforms, although nothing would happen until 1867 when the Second Reform Bill was passed. Doubtless modern politicians will be aiming for a slightly swifter timescale than their predecessors!
The below is taken from the Illustrated London News of February 1854.
OPENING OF THE PARLIAMENTARY SESSION BY HER MAJESTY THE QUEEN.
The second Session of Queen Victoria’s fourth Parliament was opened, and by her Majesty in person, on Tuesday the 31st ult. The real importance of that brilliant though sedate spectacle is to be found in the fact that the head of the State was proceeding , through the streets of the capital — those streets being crowded by an excited populace — to summon the State to sanction and to strengthen those measures which she had taken, upon the advice of her Ministers, but in the absence of Parliament to resist the aggression of one of her allies upon another of her allies — those measures leading, in all probability, to a European war, of which, once begun, no man could foresee the result this great fact is, in our time, a new fact; and in the face of such probabilities, the Session then opened must be pronounced as transcending in importance every other session of the Parliaments called in the present reign.
Even were the Russian, question not in presence, there are other circumstances which would render the opening of the session of 1854 an epoch.
The speech from the Throne which declared conditional war against the Czar, announced, also a Reform Bill — a measure which may produce as great gradual changes as were produced by the Bill (of which this is a complement and a continuation) of 1832 — a measure from which undoubtedly we shall date in our constitutional history. We remember the reign of William IV. solely for the Reform-bill, in the passing of which he was the reluctant agent; and, whatever may be the other memorable episodes reserved by fate, it would so far appear to be certain that posterity will principally commemorate Victoria for the measures which made trade free, and the measure which struck a death-blow at the system, peculiar to our Constitution, of electoral corruption and simulacrous party representation.
For still other reasons must we regard and record the initiation of the new Session with no ordinary interest.
Fortunately for a people threatened with a great war, and to whom the Sovereign appeals to undertake a great struggle, the Parliament assembled on Tuesday is, in the loftiest sense, a “National Council,” since it meets at a moment when “party” has for the present disappeared, if it has not been permanently destroyed; and the curious yet gratifying circumstance is noticeable that this Parliament, whom the Queen, with the national approval, has invited to “Reform” itself, is a Parliament in the first place in unusual accord with the Government, and in the next place is a Parliament in which, so far as the conduct of a war would be concerned, the people would appear to place the most unbounded — it may be said — unparalleled confidence.
That is to say, we have not only a Coalition Government, but a coalition House of Commons, in which — national danger impending, and national respectability (by the adoption of a Reform Bill) having to be secured — individual differences are indiscriminately suppressed. Perhaps the theory that “government by party” is the only Government applicable to a mixed Constitution like that of England may be quite sound; but at any rate it is obvious that the Ministers of Queen Victoria are not just now in face of any tangible body to be termed “Her Majesty’s Opposition.” That there are, and will be, varieties of opinions upon varieties of subjects, is as certain as that there are 654 members of the House of Commons. But the House of Commons is, for the present, without any of those party organisations which indicate the continuance of Government by party. We may return to the ancient ways of watching, or waiting for our freedom, and arranging our prosperity; but, for the present, the National Council is unconstitutionally unsymmetrical — there are no “sides.” And such a tact is to Englishmen at such a time a subject for congratulation.
All was not, however, covleur de rose in the splendours of Tuesday’s ceremonies. There were more people along the line of the Royal procession than have been seen on any like occasion since the Queen went to open the Crystal Palace in 1851 — certainly a greater number than have attended any opening of Parliament since the inauguration of her Majesty’s first Parliament.
This crowd collected partly because of national excitement in the apprehension of a great European war, but chiefly because of the pre valence of what Lord John Russell termed in the evening of the same day, an “honest delusion” — a delusion, however honest, discreditable to the sagacity and good taste of those who encouraged it. It is undoubtedly a fact that all proper precautions were taken in anticipation of a possible manifestation of unpopularity.
The whole of the Horse Guards were out — an unprecedented thing, we believe; and every available policeman that could be obtained by Sir Richard Mayno was drafted to duty along the line of the procession. There was no hissing to an extent to render such precautions necessary; and, on the other hand, there being more people than usual, there was an unusual cheering — the few hisses arousing indignant loyalty. The signs of disapprobation were very partial in the Park; but in Parliament-street they were unmistakeably evident, and the cheering which suppressed them enables the loyal to afford to admit their existence.
In other respects, the procession was as usual. The crowd, respected and “chaffed” the Guards; cheered, with ironical cheers, that special Briton, the Beef-eater; admired the horses of the Royal carriages; and wondered at the beautiful women, beautifully dressed, who, in brilliant equipages, flashed past, on their way to the Peeresses’ boxes and the galleries in the House of Lords. When the carriage of the Turkish Ambassador appeared, solitary, and attracting all eyes by the peculiar livery of his servants, he was at once recognised, and, of course, heartily cheered. The scene was a complete political ovation, which will be talked about for months to come at Constantinople and by the soldiers of the army on the Danube. “Will the Russian Ambassador appear ?” was a general question; but M. de Brunnow showed his tact and stayed at home. The liveries of the French Minister were recognised, and His Excellency received a gratifying intimation that the Anglo-French alliance is a highly popular one.
The attendance at the House of Lords was both larger and earlier than usual. Long before the hour appointed for the opening of the doors, a protracted line of carriages connected the Victoria Tower with Charing-cross; and numerous ladies, wisely impatient of the delay occasioned by getting the vehicles up in turn, descended in all their full-dress glory, and made their way on foot to the humble entrance provided for them. The Royal Gallery — by which name is known the magnificent hall through which the Queen passes from the Robing-room to the House, and which is lined on each side with seats, row over row — was very soon filled; and lucky was the new arrival whose good looks, or pertinacity, procured her a seat twenty minutes after the doors were opened, though it was then nearly two hours before the Queen would arrive. Nor were the yet more favoured lady occupants of the North Gallery (that usually set apart for less interesting strangers) much later; and this “highly advantageous locality?” was speedily adorned with a goodly show of youth, beauty, and irreproachable millinery. The body of the House filled somewhat more slowly; but the numbers of Peeresses and their friends at length appeared to be much larger than ordinary, and they even entrenched upon the single marginal bench reserved for the ermine bars. The gallery to the left of the throne was also completely occupied, but that on the right was not filled. It only remains to remark, with the utmost respect, that the fair spectators, as usual, looked to far greater advantage at the opening of Parliament than at its close, and the fresh faces and healthy complexions spoke of country rides and sea breezes, rather than of the midnight mazurka and the crowded supper-room.
The Peers were late. There was a large assemblage of Judges (who clustered together in the centre of the House), and several members of the Episcopal Bench. The Ambassadors, as they arrived, did not take their places behind the Bishops, but joined in groups near the Throne, and their various uniforms and glittering decorations helped the striking picture presented by the scene. It was, of cour se, matter of speculation whether the Russian Ambassador would be present; and searching were the glances directed at each bedizened diplomat, to discover the representative of the Power whose misdeeds were expected to be exposed. But Baron Brunnow, if present (which we doubt), escaped observation. The Turkish Ambassador was there, and came in quite radiantly, having been tremendously cheered by the people.
The distinguished assembly seated itself, the ceremony of packing being performed with considerable dexterity, as well as courtesy, by the much-entreated officials ; and a few minutes before two the usual signal was given, and scarfs, opera mantles, and shawls, fell with a gentle rustle. A brief pause, and then come the guns, and then the subdued clangour of the military; music. A few minutes, and the picturesque procession, with its heralds, and nobles, and pages, entered — and then the Queen. The entire assembly rose, and remained standing until Her Majesty, having taken her seat upon the throne, graciously requested their Lordships to be seated. The Queen wore a splendid tiara of diamonds and a diamond necklace, a white satin dress, and a train of rich claret-coloured velvet. The ensigns of State, borne by the great officers, were duly posted to the right and left of the Sovereign. The Prince Consort took his seat; and word was given to summon the Commons. The ordinary and somewhat protracted delay ensued, but a trampling of feet and cries of “Order” were heard at last, the tall form of the Speaker appeared at the bar, and the members surged up behind him, and, let us add, manifested a strange lack of self-restraint, frequently causing portions of the Speech to be lost by the noise they made. Once, indeed, an enthusiastic member so far forgot himself as to cry “Hear, hear,” at a passage which, it may be presumed, strongly reflected his own political tenets.
Her Majesty then read, with her usual clearness and emphasis, the following Speech :-
…and here I leave the transcription for now.