LONDON – Royal pageantry met hard-nosed electioneering Wednesday, as Queen Elizabeth II donned the diamond-encrusted Imperial State Crown to announce the government's plans for the next parliamentary session.
With just months to go until a national election, Prime Minister Gordon Brown is trying to woo voters with populist promises of new social programs and a clampdown on financial sector excess.
Brown must call an election by June, and polls suggest his Labour Party will lose that vote, returning the Conservatives to power after 13 years in opposition.
The queen's speech, delivered at the ceremonial state opening of Parliament, was one of the opening shots in an extended election campaign. It included promises of new laws to toughen banking regulation, restore public trust in government, cut public debt and preserve social services. As is customary, it was short on details.
"My government's overriding priority is to ensure sustained growth to deliver a fair and prosperous economy for families and businesses, as the British economy recovers from the global economic downturn," the queen said, in words written for her by government officials.
The annual event is an odd hybrid of politics and regal pomp, a policy speech delivered with the help of scarlet-robed Beefeaters, trumpeters, mounted cavalry and white-plumed bodyguards.
The queen has no say in the content of the speech, and the ceremony is rich in symbolism of the power struggle between monarchy and Parliament.
One of the queen's predecessors, King Charles I, tried to arrest members of the House of Commons in 1642 — he ended up deposed, tried and beheaded.
Ever since, the monarch has been barred from entering the Commons, so the event is held in Parliament's upper chamber, the House of Lords. Lawmakers are summoned from the Commons by an official known as Black Rod — but only after they slam the door in his face to symbolize their independence.
In another symbol of the traditional hostility between Commons and crown, a lawmaker is held at Buckingham Palace as a "hostage" during the ceremony to ensure the monarch's safe return.
Before the speech, the queen traveled from Buckingham Palace to Parliament in a horse-drawn carriage, escorted by mounted members of the Household Cavalry.
Inside the Lords chamber, packed with lawmakers and ermine-robed peers, the queen sat on a gilded throne wearing the state crown, which is studded with more than 2,000 diamonds and is normally kept under lock and key in the Tower of London.
The 83-year-old monarch appeared more robust than last year, when she was suffering from a cold and back pain. It was her 57th Queen's Speech — and one of the shortest, since the new session of Parliament will be brief.
Facing a perfect storm of recession, public anger over lawmakers' expenses and an unpopular war in Afghanistan, Brown focused on measures calculated to win public support.
The speech included the promise of a law giving regulators the power to stop bankers from pocketing big bonuses that could destabilize the financial system.
The government said it would cut the deficit in half — though not by when — while investing in public services, "strengthening the national infrastructure and providing responsible investment" and eliminating child poverty by 2020.
Other voter-friendly measures included free personal care for needy elderly people, "guarantees for pupils and parents to raise educational standards" and moves to hold parents responsible for their children's anti-social behavior.
The government promised to ban cluster munitions, and internationally it said it would "work for security, stability and prosperity in Afghanistan and Pakistan and for peace in the Middle East" — signaling a continuing commitment to keeping troops in Afghanistan.
Labour Party leaders concede they face an uphill struggle to convince voters to endorse the government during such difficult economic times.
"I don't think the polls are a great mystery," Business Secretary Peter Mandelson told political reporters Wednesday. "The country has taken a beating this year, economically. What we've been able to do through our actions is to stop a very serious banking and financial crisis from turning into a business and human disaster. It's tough still, people are in fear of their jobs."
There's no guarantee all the bills announced will make it through Parliament before the election, and the Conservatives have promised to ditch many if they are elected.