Two by two they entered, starting with Antigua, Barbuda, Cameroon working through the alphabet to the UK, Vanuatu and Zambia, the myriad colours of 52 nations, states and small islands spanning both the rainbow and the globe.
Inside, more than 600 foreign dignitaries – MPs and speakers from 170 national, state, provincial and territorial parliaments – watched as their national flags were placed together at the foot of the Hall’s great stained glass windows. The Band of the Irish Guard, resplendent in red and gold, played waltzes, a march – and even a taste of the Beatles - until the state trumpeters’ fanfare heralded the arrival of the Royal visitor.
It was an historic and fitting setting for the official opening of the 57th Commonwealth Parliamentary Association Conference in this, its centenary year.
HRH The Princess Royal inaugurated the conference and read a message from Her Majesty, The Queen, “welcoming the delegates of so many parliaments and the significance of the theme of the conference ‘Reinforcing Democracy’.
“The Royal family very much enjoy their visits to the many countries of the Commonwealth. There are many, many more planned and it is always a great privilege and a pleasure...[but] we do not take for granted the lessons learned on our visits,” she said.
“One of the most important points of what the Commonwealth can do is to ensure that nations talk to each other, that there are many more similarities between us than dissimilarities.”
Princess Anne stressed the importance of the CPA mission in 2011 to work toward strengthening both nascent and existing democracies: “Reinforcing democracy is a very good title but there are no easy answers. Maintaining strong democracies is hard work and it is up to us all to play our part in the process,” she said.
“I hope you all enjoy London and this conference but above all that all your communications concentrate on your similarities, not your differences.”
The Speaker of the House, Rt Hon. John Bercow MP, told the delegates that they were gathered in a Hall which had witnessed 1,000 years of history, grim trials, monarchs sentenced to death, great banquets and state leaders laid out in state for national mourning.
A century ago too, a lunch was held for foreign dignitaries which paved the way for the creation of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, a body which began with a handful of states – and has now expanded to more than 170.
“Most of all, this Hall in which you sit has seen the evolution of democracy...there are few places that go back so far into the heart of our nation.
“In 1911 too, that PM of the time was unable to attend that lunch because he had to attend to a small matter...one which would ensure the supremacy of the House of Commons, reinforcing democracy.”
However the Chair of the CPA’s Executive Committee, Mr Dato’ Seri Mohd. Shafie bin Haji Apdal MP, used the opportunity to break away from tradition and make a call for an expansion of the CPA, arguing that its status be changed, from a charity to an “internationally recognised body,” and suggesting that membership of the CPA be extended to non-Commonwealth jurisdictions, including states from the Middle East.
“Whilst I am sure that members recognise and applaud the role the Mother of Parliaments has played throughout the decades, it is a testament to that parliament that now, no member nation is or should be a supplicant or clone of another,” he said.
The Commonwealth Parliamentary Association’s Secretary General, Dr William Shija, urged delegates not only to look to the past but at forging a new path into the future, unifying behind common goals and using the powerful economic and political advantages of a multi-national organisation.
The Commonwealth Deputy Secretary General, Ms Mmasekgoa Masire-Mwamba, also wished the conference delegates the very best, saying that 1,000 years after construction of the great hall of Westminster - architecture designed for great consultations - the Commonwealth itself continued to stand on similar pillars of co-operation, respect and accountability.