Wales politics

Welsh assembly evolution as Queen prepares for pageant

Queen and Prince Philip
Image caption The Queen has opened the assembly three times

When is a Queen's speech not a Queen's speech? When she's at the Welsh assembly.

At the state opening of the UK parliament, the Queen tells us what legislation her government will pursue in the forthcoming year.

But the equivalent event in Cardiff Bay is more about pageantry than politics. The ceremony declares the assembly open for business, but has little to do with the business of the assembly.

The Welsh government's legislative programme will be spelled out by the first minister, not the monarch.

The Queen's address to AMs on Tuesday will mark the start of the assembly's five-year term. So it's a speech by the Queen - not to be confused with the Queen's speech.

The assembly has changed a lot since Her Majesty opened it in 1999. That occasion was an informal affair at an institution without a permanent home and with only limited powers over devolved areas. When the Queen speaks to the fourth assembly on Tuesday she will open a legislature preparing to use direct law-making powers for the first time.

First assembly, 26 May 1999

Eighteen months after the referendum that narrowly voted the assembly into existence, Presiding Officer Lord Elis-Thomas pointedly invited the Queen to greet "this newest of parliaments" in May 1999.

Wearing a bright pink hat and coat, the Queen said it was a "notable moment in our nation's long history".

"This opening today marks a new and significant direction in the way Wales is governed," she said.

Accompanying The Queen, Prince Charles, who delivered his speech in Welsh, said: "To you, the 60 members of this assembly, falls the honour of being pioneers."

Also in the news: That evening Manchester United beat Bayern Munich 2-1 at the Camp Nou in Barcelona to win the Champions League, capping an historic treble.

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Second assembly, 5 June 2003

The royal opening of the second assembly took place in the week The Queen celebrated the 50th anniversary of her coronation.

There was a clear contrast between her ancient position and the still green devolution process.

"We must always remember any new constitutional organisation takes time to settle and deliver," the Queen told AMs.

But as a comparatively young institution, the assembly was able to chart new ground in politics. The Queen pointed out that it was the first legislative body in Europe, and perhaps the world, to have equal numbers of women and men.

Her speech also contained a nod towards the worryingly low turnout at the previous month's election, when just 38% of voters took part.

She said: "I share your concerns that everyone must be encouraged to exercise their rights as voters."

Also in the news: Two days earlier The Queen attended a special service at Westminster Abbey to mark 50 years since her coronation.

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Third assembly, 5 June 2007

There was a very visible difference to the opening of the third assembly: the Queen addressed AMs in the Senedd, a year after she opened the £67m building.

As well as having a new home, AMs also had more power. Following the passage of the 2006 Government of Wales Act, the assembly could pass primary legislation, subject to approval from Westminster.

The Queen said the act "opened the way for a new era for devolution" and took the opportunity to remind AMs of the duties facing them.

"It is now for you to ensure that policies and legislation meets the needs and aspirations of the people of Wales more closely than ever before," she said.

As well as the Duke of Edinburgh and the Prince of Wales, who accompanied The Queen on previous openings, the royal party also included the Duchess of Cornwall.

There was all the pomp and splendour of a royal visit, including ranks of flag-waving children outside the Senedd and a 21-gun salute from HMS Exeter, moored at nearby Britannia Quay.

But the real drama in the early summer of 2007 was happening in meetings around Cardiff Bay as politicians tried to build coalitions following the inconclusive elections of May.

Political anoraks were gripped by the deal-making. As was The Queen, it seems. At a moment when it appeared Welsh politics could go in any direction, she told AMs: "I shall follow your progress with great interest."

Also in the news: Gerry and Kate McCann appeared on BBC One's Crimewatch to appeal for information about their missing daughter Madeleine. She vanished during a family holiday in Portugal on 3 May, 2007.

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