Lieutenant General David Leakey might not be a name you instantly recognise, partly because he is known inside and outside of Parliament as Black Rod. Best known for his role during the State Opening of Parliament, Black Rod is sent to the House of Commons by Her Majesty The Queen to summon Members of Parliament to the House of Lords to hear her speech. Slamming the door in Black Rod’s face has become one of the United Kingdom’s most accustomed traditions, and is recognised around the world for the ritual. Just a week after the State Opening of Parliament, Black Rod speaks to our Editor, Charlie Proctor, about his job, the history & traditions and, of course, Dennis Skinner.
David Leakey has one of the most recognisable faces in British politics and has recently been parodied on television shows including The Last Leg. Since being appointed to the role in 2010, he is universally recognised by his alias. He explains: “Almost everybody here calls me Black Rod. From top to bottom of Parliament, I am known as Black Rod. Sometimes even my wife calls me Black Rod!”
Many people are under the misconception that Black Rod only works a few days a year, banging his rod on the doors of the House of Commons, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. He says: “The ceremonial aspect of Black Rod, for which the post is best known, is really a nano-part of the job. State Opening takes around six weeks of preparation, but for the rest of the year, Black Rod has a number of other quite wide ranging responsibilities.”
Other key responsibilities that he undertakes on a daily basis in Parliament include the organisation and coordination of events, ensuring they all run smoothly, for example ensuring that the visits by hundreds of thousands of people who visit the Palace of Westminster each year are de-conflicted with works projects and other activities, ensuring “people don’t trip over each other’s feet” and, above all, that none of these disrupts Parliamentary business.
In addition to his role in coordinating events, Black Rod chairs the Business Resilience Group which ensures both Houses of Parliament have resilience arrangements for emergencies such as flooding, fire and security incidents. This committee is unheard of outside of Parliament and works in the background to ensure the smooth running of the Palace in the event of an emergency. Black Rod says: “It is pretty much as you would find in any big organisation whether it is a business or university or organisation.”
Whereas large-scale events such as the State Opening of Parliament occur usually once a year, smaller events including VIP visits occur in both Houses of Parliament on an almost daily basis. Black Rod explains: “Quite often these are visits by very important people or celebrities. Members can host visitors or groups and whoever they want. Sometimes visits have to be a little bit coordinated. For example, there are protocol requirements for visiting Heads of State, heads of government or ex-heads of government.
“Courtesies need to be attended to. There are security requirements which have to be coordinated with our own police protective arrangements. Very often there are media requirements if they want to have press conferences or photo calls. In Parliament, there are complex filming and photography protocols and that needs to be coordinated. Sometimes these people seek no media coverage of their visits because they want them completely private, so we make arrangements for access so that high profile figures can come to Parliament without necessarily being in the public eye. All of that is to ensure that Parliamentarians here can stage events which are orchestrated, comply with the rules of the House do not inconvenience other Members or disrupt the central business of Parliament.”
Although Black has the power ‘to detain’, he makes it clear that “The Independent Commissioner investigates what I call ‘serious crime’, breaches of the Code of Conduct. And Members’ disciplinary issues are handled by the relevant House Committee”. But, he says: “If a member runs afoul of the minor regulations such as Members’ use of the facilities of the House, media events, filming, use of entrances, guest tour protocols etc, I handle these discreetly”.
“Sometimes Members don’t know the rules, forget the rules, or there are good reasons why they have breached them, and Black Rod is expected to police them sensibly for the convenience of other Members and the smooth running or the business of the House. But of course those rules aren’t Black Rod’s rules, they are the House’s rules. Black Rod just tries to make sure that the doorkeepers, security officers and visitor assistants help Members remember the rules and we coordinate activities so that the House runs smoothly.”
Of course, this year’s State Opening of Parliament was far from smooth (or at least from the eyes of journalists trying to plan their diary). With two date changes because of the General Election and the political turmoil that followed, the actual State Opening eventually took place on Wednesday 21st June meaning The Queen almost missed the first race at Royal Ascot. Despite this, Black Rod stressed that it is his job to facilitate the requirements of Parliament, and that flexibility is key.
He says: “I have to tell you that people here get enthused about State Openings. Parliament is on global television and The Queen comes. It was no great problem changing the dates and arrangements this year at short notice. There was quite a lot of extra work involved, but it was only staff work – there wasn’t much ‘additional cost’ because you have to put on the event in any case, and the delays didn’t involve any significant additional costs. We did, however, have to reschedule other planned events to accommodate the State Opening. But this happens all the time here – events get rescheduled for whatever reasons and just like in any other business, you have to be flexible.”
One of the unique things about the United Kingdom Parliament compared to legislative houses elsewhere in the globe is the proud sense of tradition it carries. From the ceremonial dress to Norman French, Parliament’s traditions date back many centuries. In fact, the Commons door being slammed in Black Rod’s face is a tradition that dates back to the days of King Charles I who tried and was prevented from entering the Commons chamber in an attempt to arrest members. Since then, the Serjeant-at-Arms slams the door closed in a show of Commons’ political independence.
Black Rod believes that the traditions are an important part of Parliamentary life, and do not distract from the work both houses conduct. He says: “None of those what you might describe as ‘archaic’ traditional aspects distracts from the central business here which is the Parliamentary business. The House of Lords’ role is to act as the revising chamber and to hold the government to account. The traditions to not distract from this. What they actually do is to respect and remind us of the legacy of our stable democratic parliament. In some ways, I think some of the traditions and ceremonies also moderate what otherwise might become the political theatre or the political dullness of some parliamentary proceedings.
“Tradition makes this place distinctive. It is the UK national parliament and it draws attention to Parliament, it adds some dignity to Parliament, and it respects the tradition and the legacy of what has been handed down to us. I think tradition is the anchor point of stability. With all the political turbulence and sometimes political instability, the tradition & the uniforms have a moderating influence. The style is distinctive and helpful to Parliament.”
From one tradition to another, veteran MP Dennis Skinner is famous around the world for the quips and heckles he makes during the State Opening of Parliament when Black Rod summons the Commons to the House of Lords. Without a moment of hesitation, Black Rod described his yearly encounter with the Bolsover MP as being: “Rather like an opening batsman going out against one of the world’s fastest bowlers.”
He adds: “I’m a great fan of Dennis Skinner, I’ve got to know him a little over the years. He and I came to an arrangement five years ago when I did my first State Opening. I bumped into him in the corridor one day and we had a conversation about his remarks in the chamber and I said to him I was a bit surprised he had sometimes in the past made what one might describe as personal comments aimed at Black Rod. I suggested to him that it wasn’t a worthy thing for an MP to do when Black Rod has no right of reply. I suggested to Dennis that rather than make comments about Black Rod with global TV cameras focusing on him for a few seconds, he should take the opportunity to make some humorous or topical remark. You may have noticed over the past four or five years that is what he has done. I don’t worry about him. Dennis and I get on very well and I like him very much.”
As for entering the House of Commons itself, he says that although it can be a nervous experience, it is nothing to be fearful of. He explains: “I enjoy the State Opening and I enjoy going to the Commons – one shouldn’t be fearful of these occasions because if you are then it is prone to go wrong. Of course, one is nervous; one shouldn’t be overconfident in these things.”
So, how did Lieutenant General David Leakey become one of the most famous officers of State in the British Parliament and how does one become Black Rod? “It’s all in the legs” he jokes, saying that the position holder has to wear silk stockings and patent leather slippers. It might not be everybody’s look, but the job is advertised in public, and when Lieutenant General Leakey applied, there were over 100 credible applicants from all walks of life, for example, including event managers, from the financial and security sector, consultants and from the Civil Service.
Explaining how he was selected for the job, Black Rod says: “A panel went through the CVs and eight candidates were interviewed by a panel of peers. That long list of eight was reduced to a shortlist of two and we were interviewed by the party political leaders, the convener of the Crossbench Peers and the Lord Speaker. That panel selected somebody, that happened to be me, and made a recommendation to The Queen; it is The Queen who appoints Black Rod.”
But what does Black Rod consider to be the best part of the job? He says: “It is a great privilege to hold what is a historic appointment which has been going since the middle of the 14th Century. It’s a great privilege to work in Parliament and a pleasure working in an amazing and historic building and witnessing first hand the political theatre and how very very serious the parliamentarians are about their roles and the jobs they do and the commitment they give to it. I suppose one has a privileged viewpoint of the Parliamentary process. It has frustrations too, but those frustrations are just the same as those encountered in any other senior management job.”