The peers were in their ermine and scarlet robes. Their wives wore long dresses and at least in the Tory side, diamond tiaras. Black Rod, Rouge Dragon Pursuivant, Garter King of Arms and the rest of the Lewis Carroll cast carried maces, bore caps, wielded staves and fulfilled the other ritual demands.

The queen, resplendent in a white crepe dress and the glittering imperial crown, read out iin her high-pitched volge the 10-minute speech that James Callaghan, her prime minister, had written. The middle-aged queen needs glasses now. She drove off in a gilt coach with Prince Philip to the satisfied applause of several thousand waiting outside Westminister Palace.

"Ruritania on the Thames," growled a veteran newsman who had seen too many of these state openings of Parliament. Indeed, the whole affair did look as if Signund Romberg had written the score.

The press gallery cynic could have gone further. The speech, a state of the realm address, outlined Callaghan's legislative program that is notable for its thinness. There are no new ideas, no bold programs.

This Parliament will spend most of its time on two measures that a majority would cheerfully bury if they had any choice. One provides Scotland with a local legislature and a measure of self-government. This is a threat to the parliamentary status quo, but it probably will pass because Callaghan fears the growing strength of Scottish nationalists who would go even further and set up an independent state.

The other would enable Britons to elect representatives, probably by proportional representation, to the powerless European Assembly at Strasbourg. Most members of Parliament hate the thought of bending the tradition of election by single-member districts. But Callaghan's survival depends on the votes of the 13 Liberals, and they have a passionate interest in changing a voting system that leaves them under-represented.

political wiseacres are saying that the lack of substance in the queen's address from the gilt throne shows that Callaghan does not want to overburden the parliamentary agenda, because he plans an election next fall. The prime minister was dropping hints of this all day.

The meager agenda and Callaghan's ultimate decision on an election both reflect something else: the key questions are no longer decided in Parliament.

Whether Callaghan calls an election in the fall of 1978 or the spring of 1979 depends on his success in reviving a sluggish economy, trimming unemployment and inflation. All this in turn depends largely on the decisions of Callaghan and a half dozen ministers, about six trade unions, the four national bands and a handful of key industrialists whose investment and pricing plans are crucial.

Earlier this week, it looked as if Callaghan's hopes to restrain wages and prices were to be blasted by the coal miners who brought down the Conservative Party of Edward Heath in 1974. The miners voted down a plan to tie their pay to increases in production that seemed to commit them to a demand for a price-shattering 90 per cent pay increase.

But they have a way of mending broken pieces, and today the gloom has lightened. Several miner districts have said they will ignore the national vote and take the productivity plan anyway. Mick McGahey, the Communist firebrand who leads the Scottish miners, has urged his members to work harder.

The chances are that Callaghan will find some way to avoid confrontation. His capacity for compromise is so marked that a former colleague, the late Richard Crossman, once wrote in his diary: "Jim Callaghan behaved with an agregious oiliness and smoothness which was almost unbearable."

Whether or not that is admirable, the biggest liability of his chief rival, Margaret Thatcher, is the fear that the Tory leader would engage the unions in a head-on clas.

While this drama is played out, Parliament will talk but will have little effect on the real decisions. Others will make them: Parliament will ratify them.

Does that make today's ceremony a clear case of emptiness? Another view holds that any society needs ritual and pageantry to bind its members together, to link the present to the past. When Black Rod Summons the members of Parliament to hear the queen, they shut the door in his face, a reminder three centuries old that the monarch reigns but does not rule.

In fact, millions of televiewers missed that rite today because the BBC's staff called a quickie strike over pay, an even harsher reminder that power has passed from Westminster.

The spectacle, however, lies at the root of that dramatic sense that makes the BBC and the theater here the envy of the world. More than that, it underscores the consensus that animates British life, a widespread agreement on how affairs shall be conducted.