THE ROW over Tony Blair's role in the Queen Mother's funeral arrangements has thrust the Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod into the political and constitutional limelight. Before last week, Black Rod was famed only for banging his stick on the Commons door during the ceremony of the Queen's Speech.
Indeed, the highly charged affair has focused attention on the roles of many other ceremonial functionaries who work in the Palace of Westminster, the Royal Household and law courts up and down the land.
Britain's constitutional monarchy provides thousands of jobs for stick- carriers, stocking-wearers and travelling yeoman, whose origins can be traced to the times of William the Conqueror and beyond.
The evolution of our constitution has stripped many of them of any real power but others still retain positions of influence with both the Queen and her government.
For example, the Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine of Lairg, is both a minister and head of the judiciary whose powers remain as potent as those of some of his more famous 16th century predecessors Cardinal Wolsey and Sir Thomas More. Lord Irvine's determination to continue sitting as a judge while remaining in the Cabinet has led to calls for his role to be redefined.
Others have been forced to have their political wings clipped. The post of Lord Chamberlain was depoliticised in 1924 when he was made to cease participating in overt political activities. Today the Lord Chamberlain oversees the conduct and general business of the Royal Household, a post which means he still has the ear of the Queen.
Until 1966 the Lord Chamberlain was responsible for the censorship of the theatre and even today his office retains responsibility for dealing with the commercially sensitive Royal Warrants, granted to companies whose goods or services are used by some royal households.
His department is also in charge of some of the most ancient traditions connected with the monarchy. These include the Body Guards (Gentlemen at Arms, Yeoman of the Guard, Royal Company of Archers), the Crown Jewels, and even the Queen's ownership of swans on a stretch of the Thames. More importantly he also handles all matters of protocol and certain Household appointments.
While the role of Lord Chamberlain has been down-graded, the holder of the title Keeper of the Privy Purse, has been enhanced.
The current post is held by Sir Michael Peat, who acts as the Queen's financial director, believed to be responsible for hundreds of millions of pounds of private investments.
As the fault-lines between Parliament and the monarchy have widened over the issue of financial accountability, Sir Michael has grown in political stature. It was Sir Michael who persuaded the Queen to pay income tax in 1993 and to embark on a strict cost- cutting campaign that has led to a pounds 48m reduction in state aid to the Palace in the past 10 years. It was also Sir Michael who met MPs last week when they visited Prince and Princess Michael of Kent to question them over their rental agreement at Kensington Palace.
Outside the Palace, the Queen is represented by 98 Lords Lieutenant. …