These days the queen’s formal role as Britain’s head of state is largely ceremonial. While she has the power and opportunity to influence Britain’s government and to defend her own interests, she generally does what the prime minister tells her to. Her job consists mostly of cutting ribbons, watching others cut ribbons, attending cultural and sporting events, and making the occasional anodyne speech. The role comes with no real responsibility for which she will be held to account—there are plenty of lackeys and supporters who will take the flack for any royal failings. The buck stops a few rungs below the queen.
Despite misleading headlines this week about a possible “pay cut,” the British taxpayer continues to fork over millions to fund the lifestyles of the queen and 15 ‘working’ royals? The monarchy seems to be a corrupt institution that fails to live up to the highest standards of integrity or accountability.
Royal funding is shrouded in obfuscation, spin and denial so it’s not always easy to get a clear answer to how much it really costs the taxpayer. Last year, the “official” figure was £35.7 million (about $55 million). This is made up of a single “sovereign grant” that the government gives the palace. That figure is expected to go up to £40 million this year, a 29% increase from when the grant was introduced three years ago. At the same time, taxpayers in the UK are experiencing massive public sector cuts to jobs and essential services.
The increase in the royal grant hasn’t come about as a result of careful consideration or proper budgeting, but as a result of a bizarre and unique funding arrangement. The level of funding is pegged to the profits of the Crown Estate, a state-owned property empire that owns, among other things, the entire seabed off Britain’s coast. With a rapid expansion of offshore windfarms the royals get a rapid increase in state funding. For the queen the real icing on the cake is that the level of funding can’t go down. If Crown Estate profits fall, royal funding cannot fall below that of the previous year.
Yet that £40 million is only the tip of the iceberg. A report that I’m publishing later this month puts the real annual cost of the monarchy— when you count security, lost income from property assets and costs met by local government—at more than £300 million. That’s more than Britain spends on the Cancer Drugs Fund. It’s more than the country spends feeding its armed forces. Britain cut almost as much from desperately needed national flood defenses over recent years, as part of the government’s austerity agenda. The U.K. could employ 14,000 new police officers or 15,000 new teachers for the amount we spend on the royals. Instead, police forces and schools are being told to make cuts, while more money is thrown at the queen and her extended family.
No one seems to stop to think about what the royals actually need this money for. While Britain sees a rapid rise in the use of food banks and the slashing of services that support some of the most vulnerable people in society, taxpayer money is funding the royals’ interests and lifestyles.
Why is the British monarchy so expensive? It’s unaccountable, lacks transparency, and has access to government ministers and the opportunity to defend its interests with impunity. Much of the £300 million is not being spent on official duties. The travel bill alone is bloated by personal trips around the country—such as when Prince Charles spent £30,000 on a chartered plane for a four-day holiday in Scotland, just 400 miles from his London home. That’s more than many people earn in a whole year. We don’t know all the details because the royals refuse to publish fully itemized accounts.
I object to the monarchy for a number of reasons, and cost isn’t really one of them. If there were no cost, I would still call for its abolition on the grounds of good politics and democratic principle. But the extravagant cost raises serious questions about the accountability of the institution and about the morals of those who occupy it and support it. I would welcome the opportunity to ask Prince Charles to meet a public sector worker who has lost his job, to look him in the eye and justify why his publicly funded holiday is more important than another man’s livelihood. I would also ask government ministers why they continue to allow the royals to get away with such blatant abuse of public funds when at the same time those same ministers are telling voters we all need to tighten our belts and make sacrifices.
Some will argue that the monarchy provides value in tourism and trade. But Britain’s tourism could thrive without help from the royals. And there is no evidence to show the royals do us any favors in the world of international trade, either. And the Crown Estate—that vast property portfolio I mentioned—belongs to the nation, not the royals.
The monarchy is a fundamental part of the British constitution, but it shouldn’t be and it’s not something I want to be paying for, no matter how much it costs.