Can the British monarchy last forever?

Increasing awareness of the shady dealings of the monarchy - and the institutions that protect it - are leading to a growing republican movement in the UK.

JP O' Malley
21 July 2016

Queen Elizabeth's Swan Uppers perform their annual count of the Queen's swans on the Thames River. PAimages/Leonora Beck. All rights reserved.On 21 April, the day she celebrated her ninetieth birthday party, Queen Elizabeth clocked up a total of 23,451 days on the throne. In September 2015 the Queen had already made history: becoming the longest reigning British monarch in a 1000 years. Previously, the record of 63 years was set by her great-great grandmother, Queen Victoria.

Recent polls show that 76 percent of Britons believe having a hereditary power as the head of state is a good idea. That figure is up from 65 percent in 2005. On the surface, then, it would appear that support for the monarchy in Britain is at an all time high.

However, there is an anti-royalist brigade — which consists of prominent academics, MPs, former government ministers, historians, and dedicated Republicans —who believe that support for the monarchy is built on foundations of sand.

Moreover, those voicing their opposition to the monarchy say beneath the pomp and ceremony, glamour, and deep sense of tradition, is an outdated, archaic institution, which is extremely secretive, undemocratic, and very costly to the British taxpayer. 

Dennis Skinner, a veteran left wing Labour MP— who has served in Westminster for Bolsover since 1970—  said he was against the “principle of hereditary power.”

“I believe in democracy,” Skinner explained, “and those who are at the helm of power should have to face elections,” he added.

Skinner said the Privy Council along with the House of Lords,” was part of the pyramid that props up the British monarchy.”

The Privy Council is one of the oldest surviving governmental institutions in the world.

Its members include all present and past members of cabinet, a few members of the royal family, some archbishops from the Church of England, as well as a number of senior judges from across the British commonwealth.

All cabinet members become privy councillors, and their oath of secrecy underpins collective cabinet responsibility.

The Privy Council ensures that, officially, the British Monarchy is outside of party politics. However, the confusing split between ancient form and modern practice, allows the monarchy to cling onto hard power within the broader system of government in a Constitutional Monarchy.

David Rogers, author of By Royal Appointment: Tales from the Privy Council- the Unknown Arm of Government explained why: “It's important to remember that it's the Monarch's Privy Council, and not Parliament's,” said Rogers.

“The monarchy can make whatever rules they want to,” Rogers added.

Norman Baker, a former Liberal Democrat MP— who served as Minister of State for the Home Office, in the last coalition government— described the Privy Council as both “undemocratic and outdated.”

“As someone who is [currently] a member of the Privy Council,” said Baker “I believe the powers which exist for the Privy Council should be transferred to Parliament.”  

If certain members of the Privy Council itself don't fully understand its functions, or believe in its role, might this then suggest its secretive nature serves no purpose, other than protecting the unquestionable-absolutist-power that the monarchy actually represents?

“This is part of a much wider question about secrecy in government,” said Rogers.

“The Privy Council embodies not so much secrecy, but confidentiality,” Rogers added.

Rogers said because Britain doesn't have a written constitution, practices within the Privy Council are “tremendously difficult [to understand].”

The subtle arm of government constantly lurking underneath the British monarchy is purposely designed with multiple layers of bureaucracy: so that confusion muddles the democratic process.

Thus ensuring that ongoing protest, and a constant questioning of the power structures it represents, are always kept to a minimum.

Last year, Karina Urbach, a prominent royalist historian, whom I interviewed for The Times of Israel explained how the Royal Archives became extremely hostile to her when she began writing a book exploring the British monarchy’s dealings with Nazi Germany during the 1930s.

Urbach, who has also written a book on Queen Victoria said she was ostracised by the Royal Archives for demanding access to papers relating to royal correspondence for the interwar years, which have a strict embargo.

“The Royal Archives claim that they are a private archive: of course they are not,” Urbach explained.

“The British public are entitled to have access to this correspondence because it’s their history.”

“The [monarchy] pretends to be an open [institution] but they are not giving us the real historical material,” Urbach added.

Studying the paper trail of the Royal Family is difficult. Mainly because so much information about them is kept secret, or skewed in ambiguity.

Take, for instance, how the Royal Family is financed

Back in 1992, in a book entitled Royal Fortune: Tax, Money and the Monarchy Philip Hall claimed that Queen Elizabeth— at that time— was the wealthiest person in England, and the fourth richest individual in the world.

Hall described the House of Windsor, in his book, as a “wealth creating machine”. 

The author also claimed that it's almost impossible to calculate the final extent of the monarchy's total assets, because it refuses to allow any serious investigation into its wealth.

Today, Norman Baker agrees. The former MP and minister said it was disturbing that the Royal Family is excluded from the Freedom of Information Act: passed 16 years ago by Parliament it created a public right of access to information held by public authorities in Britain.

“[The Royal Family] because they are acting in a public capacity, should be subject to Freedom of Information, just like other [public servants] are,” said Baker.

Since 1993, the Royal Household has published an annual finance report: this claims to display—in full— the cost of the monarchy to the British taxpayer. Presently, the official figure stands at £40 million per year.

However, the organisation Republic disputes this: estimating the royals to cost the British taxpayer £334 million per year.

So, how is the monarchy actually funded?

From 1760, up until 2011, the Royal Household was funded by what was  known as a Civil List payment: this was an annual grant that covered expenses associated with the Sovereign performing their official duties to the British Monarchy.

All of these costs, however, have since been rolled into one single annual payment called the Sovereign Grant: this was introduced by the coalition government in 2011 and was the biggest legislation reform to the finances of the British Royal Family since the inception of the Civil List in 1760.

The Sovereign Grant consolidated what were previously four separate funding sources of the monarchy into one single payment. 

Norman Baker believes the Sovereign Grant is “less transparent than the Civil List” and called it “a deeply regressive move.”

Baker's main concern is that the Sovereign Grant links the Royal Family to the Crown Estate: a land and property portfolio managed on behalf off the British government whose surplus revenue is paid annually to the British Treasury.

Officially, the Crown Estate is neither government property, nor part of the monarch's private estate. The Crown Estate is one of the largest property owners in the United Kingdom. With a property portfolio worth £8.1 billion, it has significant ownership of property all over Britain— most prominently in central London— including nearly all of Regents' Street.

“There is no connection between the Royal Family and The Crown Estate,” said Baker.

“It has been separated since 1760. But the Royal family has been trying get the link re-established for a long time,”he added.

“Unfortunately, much to my horror, the government I was a part of, re-established that link with the passing of The Sovereign Grant Act,” said Baker.

Baker claims that the former Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, was the chief orchestrator in the move to renegotiate how the Royal's finances were paid by the Treasury.  

Graham Smyth, CEO of Republic, said that the Sovereign Grant is “an absolute scandal and an atrocious way of funding any public institution.”

“Public spending should always be done through a proper process of budgeting,” claimed Smyth.

Smyth  said the Crown Estate did not belong to the Royals.

”They have no claim on the money,” Smyth insisted.  “But [the British government] just keep giving them 15 percent of it every year,” he added.

Under The Sovereign Grant Act, this 15 percent is to be reviewed every five years by the Royal Trustees: presently they  are the Prime Minister, Theresa May, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond, and the keeper of the Privy Purse, Sir Alan Reid.

Smyth's most robust criticism of the Sovereign Grant is that it only accounts for a small portion of the total cost of running the monarchy.

Extra hidden costs, claims Smyth — such as the cost of security for civic and public engagements, for instance— are paid by local councils and local institutions.

“When the Royals turn up in someone's town or school, people don't realize they're being landed with a very large bill,” said Smyth.

Presently, Republicans in Britain amount to just 17 percent of the population.

But Smyth believes there is a wide spread indifference, and apathy, to the monarchy on the whole.

The Queen's current popularity is based on “familiarity rather than ideology,” said Smyth.

Anna Whitelock, a Reader in Early Modern History at Royal Holloway, University of London, also shares this view.

Whitelock claims that because there hasn't been a coronation for over sixty years, the British public haven't had a proper occasion to question what the monarchy actually represents: in terms of its tradition, its symbolic meaning, and, ultimately, its power. 

“Believing the monarchy will just carry on with the same level of support after the current Queen dies, is incredibly naïve,” said Whitelock

Moreover, both Whitelock and Smyth believe that if Prince Charles becomes King in the near future, he will refuse to remain politically neutral, or stay outside of party politics.  

While support for the retention of the monarchy is currently high, Smyth said it was incredibly shallow; and, that like all political issues in Britain, until people actually start discussing this topic regularly in public, the status quo always has significant advantage.

Even those who vehemently support the monarchy claim The House of Windsor cannot remain perpetually in power.

Dr Andrzej Olechnowicz, a professor of Modern British History at Durham University— and a royalist— said the future of the monarchy is far from certain.

“If you ask people: will there be a monarchy in 50 years time? the numbers who say yes are very small,” said Olechnowicz.

“There is a belief out there that it cannot go on forever,” he added.  

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