There are few better ways to stoke a blustering sense of British pride than to question the Royal Family’s merit in society today.
Find the temerity to do so, and you’ll be greeted by some stout protestation on tourism revenues or an abstract notion of national unity.
Prince Philip and his racist comments are charming quirks, multi-million pound tax-payer expensed weddings are justified while the country sees the longest fall in living standards since the 1950s, and the greatest exemplar of a class system founded on a God-given right to superiority is celebrated with commemorative plates and crockery.
To be fair, the monarchy hasn’t been without its uses. While any idea of national unity might be long gone in Brexit-riven Britain, Prince Charles has been a great asset for sustainability and organic farming, and the Queen does a great deal of work for charity.
At the same time, the Royal Family generates a reasonable sum for the Treasury too. Each year there are nearly three million visitors to Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle, and this helps to bring in some £500 million in tourism revenues.
More broadly, the British economy earns £1.7 billion from the monarchy and its various assets, including the Crown Estate’s surplus and indirect affects on other industries.
Meanwhile, the cost in return to the taxpayer of the Family’s maintenance is relatively small – some £292 million, including the Sovereign Grant, security expenses, and residence maintenance, amongst others.
Yet, all tales of monarchic wealth are subject to murky accounting, making the actual value of such wealth uncertain.
Estimates put the Royal Family’s actual wealth at around £23 billion in nominal assets. This includes the two Duchies(Cornwall and Lancaster), numerous historic properties (including various castles and estates, racecourses and hotels), the Royal Collection, and the Crown Estate (its primary investment vehicle) which owns troves of London property, numerous retail parks and shopping centres, most of the British seabed and many of the UK’s offshore wind farms, the rights to gold-mining in Scotland, and some 600,000 acres of land.
Not all of this is private wealth. Much of it – for instance, the Crown Estate – is said to be “owned on behalf of the nation” or for “future generations”. And from the Crown Estate’s portfolio of £12.4 billion, we the future generations – with our national Treasury as arbiter – are offered £329 million in recompense, after the Queen’s 25%.
To put this in context, the nominal value of the £23 billion in assets owned by the Royal Family is close to or the same as the values of companies like BT Group (£23 billion) and Barclays Bank (£25 billion), and even whole economies, like Iceland (£24 billion) and Cyprus (£22 billion). This puts the British Royal Family in the top forty wealthiest families in the world.
At a time when in Britain we can think of little other than our Exit from the European Union – and particularly when half the country thinks the monarchy is a beneficial anyway – why is this important?
After nearly a decade of austerity, the UK has suffered greatly.
Around Britain today, 14 million people (a fifth of the population) now live in poverty, 1.5 million are destitute, and child poverty is rapidly rising. Over the last decade the UK has endured the longest fall in living standards since records began in the 1950s, we now have a housing market that is chronically insecure, under-supplied and devoid of opportunity for those in need, and the use of food banks is at record highs.
Meanwhile, at a time when we were – not that long ago – said to be ‘all in this together’, the Queen rings in the New Year with her annual speech sat next to a gold piano.
The Royal Family sits on a vast sum of wealth. And this wealth is not owned because of their hard work or some stroke of genius, but because their descendants have for hundreds of years been handed the God-given right to rule – a right to a profound superiority that deems the rest of us inferior by virtue of our birth.
Contrary perhaps to the assumption, this is not only a problem for the optimistic principles of the left.
As the works of Pickett & Wilkinson show (The Spirit Level, The Inner Level, etc.), inequality deeply affects the functioning and health of society and economy – it’s the great social pollutant.
In more unequal societies we see worse mental and physical health outcomes, more drug abuse, lower literacy, higher violence, lower trust, and weaker communities and social relations. And while they may be concentrated in more deprived areas, these affects manifest across society.
This is because higher income and wealth inequality leads to increasing dynamics of dominance and subordination, exacerbating existing patterns in humanity’s evolved psychology. This exaggerates instances of status and social anxiety, which are experienced across income groups as inequality rises. And by making class and status increasingly important as a way to communicate self-worth, such feelings produce doubts about self-worth that damage the social relations crucial to our well-being.
In particular, the evidence demonstrated by Pickett & Wilkinson, alongside numerous other studies, reveals that mental health issues are distinctly related to such patterns of dominance and subordination.
This is why the incidence of mental health issues is higher in more unequal societies. And in Britain, as one of the most unequal countries in Europe, this helps to explain why more than a quarter adults experience mental health issues every year.
At the same time, the damage of greater inequality can be felt at the scale of whole economies too. Research now shows us that greater inequality dampens economic growth and exacerbates economic instability. This makes reducing inequality and improving long-term economic growth two sides of the same coin.
Of course, inequality in Britain is not only the fault of the Royal Family.
Rather, much of it is the product – particularly since the 1970s, the rise of globalisation and the advent of Thatcherism – of processes of financialisation and the power of a financial sector geared only toward capital accumulation, offering little to the well-being of the masses.
Yet, the position of the Royal Family at the apex of British society is significant and symbolic. It serves only to maintain “inherited privilege at the heart of government”, embedding “patronage at the centre of power”, and exemplifies beyond all else the class problems and inequality that are rife in our country today.
And in representing the absolute manifestation of a God-conferred superiority, the Royal Family helps to generate and exacerbate the dynamics of inequality that otherwise hold so much of the country beneath the heel, whether we realise it or not.
Britain is floundering under the legacy of austerity and the looming weight of Brexit.
And at this time, the £23 billion or so in Royal wealth and assets could simply be put to better use.
For instance, much of this wealth could be subsumed into a national development bank or given to a fund like Big Society Capital to manage, whether to physically to lease out, develop on, or as assets to borrow against. This wealth could then be put to positive societal use, whether in building housing, community assets, or infrastructure.
This use of the monarchy’s assets wouldn’t resolve Britain’s crippling problems of inequality, insecurity or precarity on their own.
To do so, our economy needs root and branch reform, from greater intervention in housing and land markets, to curtailing the influence of finance and improving the rights of employees.
But as a starting point, taking power away from such celebrated institutions of inequality is an important part of the effort to re-balance the British economy toward one that seeks to serve the needs of the people, rather than maintain that of the powerful.
In place of the monarchy, we would be provided the opportunity to build a sense of pride and national identity around something meaningful – namely, the progressive liberal and democratic values that are fundamental to fostering a healthy society.
Above all – Liberté, égalité, fraternité.
Loosely translated, it’s time to start sharpening the guillotines.
Originally published here.