Keir Starmer has warned protesters who favour a new head of state based on merit as determined by a popular vote to respect those who mourn and (in his words) “say thank you to a remarkable sovereign and reflect on the history we’re seeing in front of us”. Labour MPs have been warned to say nothing about the succession except by paying tribute to the late Queen. By comparison, Labour voters are a very radical bunch – offered by YouGov last year a choice of succession between Charles, William and no monarch at all, they split three equal ways.
This is not the first time that the royal succession has been marked by a stifling of debate. Michael Young, who drafted Labour’s 1945 manifesto and later wrote a satirical classic The Rise of Meritocracy describing an oligarchy of the future, wrote a paper about the late Queen’s 1953 coronation. He argued: “On the monarchy, at a coronation or any other time, political science and philosophy too are silent. About this most august institution there is no serious discussion at all.” Has nothing changed in Elizabeth’s reign?
Yet surely, there is no better time to argue that pomp and ceremony are designed to promote monarchism, affirm the status quo, conceal the power and influence of a ruling elite and deflect public questioning about it. Swearing allegiance to the monarch may be seen as mere ceremony, but the implied acceptance of the existing social order is real.
Very few would challenge the prevailing view of the late Queen’s commitment to public service or a national period of mourning but that is not incompatible with challenging the apparent parliamentary consensus on how Britain’s head of state is chosen. Nor are those who do so restricted to the 20% committed to an elected head of state (according to YouGov).
Many who support a monarchy (reportedly including King Charles himself) favour a slimmed down version with fewer royals, others one based on a written constitution preventing interference in government policy or any decisions which should properly reside with those who are elected by the people. Many would also favour a monarchy with fewer palaces and mansions who pay the same taxes as the rest of us on income and wealth. Or a secular state with a monarch who was a defender of neither the faith nor faith in general. Some may well feel that the monarchy should be the subject of a referendum, perhaps prior to a coronation.
The passing of vast private wealth at precisely this time, without taxation, is what most urgently deserves attention. The true scale of the Queen’s wealth is unknown thanks to her exemption from more than 160 laws since 1967 (including company legislation requiring the disclosure of beneficial ownership for everyone else) and to the arcane and opaque procedures known as ‘vetting’ and Queen’s (now King’s) ‘consent’.
‘Consent’ requires ministers to alert the monarch and their heir when legislation might affect either the royal prerogative or their private interests, and enables the monarchy to lobby to protect their private interests even before legislation is published; “the kind of influence over legislation that lobbyists would only dream of”, according to an Oxford specialist in constitutional law quoted in The Guardian.
The Duchies of Lancaster and Cornwall (net assets £1.7bn) have recently been subject to somewhat greater scrutiny despite longstanding royal resistance, which is undoubtedly responsible for the innovative ‘voluntary payment’ of income and capital gains tax since 1993. However, no inheritance tax has nor will be paid (though normally paid at 40% above a threshold).
The private wealth of the monarch and Prince of Wales not held by the two duchies whose ownership transferred on the death of the Queen is also in law exempt from income, capital gains and inheritance tax. It includes the Sandringham and Balmoral estates as well as significant holdings of stocks and shares. Because they are entirely hidden from public view, we cannot know how much tax is lost by the exemption and it is of course most unlikely that income and capital gains tax will have been paid ‘voluntarily’ as it was by the two royal duchies!
The greatest issue is not the money that has been lost to the public coffers but that the power and influence that has been exercised in secret by one head of state to protect their private family interests against everyone else’s has simply passed to their eldest son.
The respect that is now being shown to Queen Elizabeth derives from the wartime contribution of George VI and his family, who were seen as down with the people, visiting bomb sites in the East End of London. It put behind the House of Windsor the memory of the abdication crisis in 1936 after the decision of his brother Edward VIII to marry a divorced American Nazi-sympathiser.
Time magazine’s cover story for Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation, which at the time stated that in “an age which prides itself on practicality, dismisses pomp as pretension and regards royalty as an empty anachronism”, nevertheless described respect for the royals as “earned and freely given”. On the ‘annus horribilis’, which culminated in the separation of Charles and Diana, its cover story said “Britain’s House of Windsor is under fire in 1992 as it has not been since 1936″. Adultery, love affairs, Dianagate, Camillagate, all left an archaic institution facing calls for the monarchy to be taxed, slashed, axed and to skip over the ‘dysfunctional generation’ now known as Charles III.
The Queen’s evident status with the public does not transfer to Charles who will have to earn the trust of the public as the collective grief around her death and funeral subsides. His brand was permanently damaged by the events leading to Diana’s death which continue to play through royal generations. His obvious extravagance and sense of entitlement will ensure that it will be downhill from the coronation if not before.