As It Happens

British archivist explains how 'goatskin' parchment can delay the Queen's speech

The Queen's speech, which marks the opening of the U.K.'s Parliament, is expected to be delayed in part because it must be inscribed on goatskin parchment paper.
Queen Elizabeth reads the Queen's speech from the throne during State Opening of Parliament in the House of Lords at the Palace of Westminster on May 18, 2016. (Alastair Grant/Getty Images)

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The Queen's speech, which marks the opening of the U.K.'s Parliament, is expected to be delayed in part because of a British tradition of inscribing the text on so-called goatskin parchment paper and waiting several days for the ink to dry. 

The acid-free archival-quality "goatskin" paper — which doesn't actually contain any goatskin — is supposed to last at least 500 years.

"The reason really behind it is trying to look towards durability, while keeping a sense of tradition," Gary Brannan, an archivist with the Borthwick Institute for Archives at the University of York, told As It Happens host Carol Off. 

"These are things that are intended to be really permanent, so they want to make sure to use material that lasts a long time."

British Prime Minister Theresa May's spokesperson suggested on Monday that the Queen's speech, which outlines the government's legislative priorities for the year ahead, will likely not go forward on June 19 as scheduled.

That's because the details of the speech can't be finalized until May's Conservatives finish hammering out a deal with the Democratic Unionist Party after losing their parliamentary majority in last week's snap election.

Once the speech is ready, it will be inscribed on the parchment before it's bound and delivered to the Queen to be signed.

"The way the paper is made means that, unlike sort of regular paper you might pull out of the printer or something, the ink doesn't soak into the material," Brannan said. "So it does take quite a long time to dry."

That process doesn't leave a lot of room for last-minute edits. 

"It's a nod back to the permanency and the slow nature of how things used to be done," Brannan said.

"In the past they would have taken time for things to be decided and written down. Writing things down was a really permanent, final act in things. It sort of sits at odds with the way the modern world has evolved."

And in this modern world, May's critics have grown impatient with the delay, accusing the government of biding its time in order to cling to power.

Asked whether the goatskin is a convenient excuse for the Conservatives, Brannan said: "To use a very well-worn political phrase: You may think that. I couldn't possibly comment."


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