IT takes you by surprise sometimes, the way you can feel affection for someone you’ve never met.
The Queen inspires that feeling, particularly now, in her nineties. In an era when the dominant political mood is individualist, bombastic and self-indulgent, she continues to behave publicly in the way that’s expected of her, with quiet dignity, as she has done since 1952. One of the abiding images of 2021 is of her sitting alone amid empty pews at the Duke of Edinburgh’s funeral, wearing a face mask in accordance with the rules, her hunched shoulders and downcast eyes the only clues to her private distress.
The Queen has a unique status in the public consciousness, one that has noticeably grown apart from that of the wider Royal Family. She is extraordinarily wealthy and privileged, of course, but that has come at a price. She is appreciated for having sacrificed a normal family life in order to be a public property, putting her duties first. She enters her platinum jubilee year tomorrow and there are probably few, even among committed republicans, who would relish seeing the monarchy toppled while she is on the throne.
But when she’s gone? Well, that’s a different matter.
Personally, I used to feel that the monarchy was the least-worst option when it came to a head of state, since the prospect of a presidential election was so dismal. (President Clarkson, anyone? President Farage?) The Queen performs the role as you’d want her to. If there were an interview process for a ceremonial head of state, the Queen would get the job, having always done the bidding of parliaments and prime ministers; she’s never rattled the bars of her gilded cage or sought to bend them out of shape, or not that we know of.
She appears know her place. Does Charles, he of the “black spider memos” that lobbied government on alternative medicine and badger culls? It seems not.
But that’s not the real problem. The principal reason why the monarchy should be retired is this: the reactionary influence that the institution continues to exert on British society.
It sits at the pinnacle of the class system and is a bulwark of the aristocracy. If we don’t say goodbye to the monarchy, then it becomes harder to get rid of the social structures that over centuries have grown up around it, acting as a block to meaningful equality of opportunity.
It’s not just the painful deference it seems to inspire. The monarchy legitimises the hereditary principle and the shadowy concentration of wealth, property, land and titles within families. It also legitimises tax evasion by the landed rich. Secrecy surrounds the Queen’s personal wealth but it’s thought to be at least £350m, and is officially exempt from UK tax laws (though the Queen has paid tax voluntarily since 1993).
The British aristocracy is similarly adept at accruing wealth and property, and evading scrutiny of it. Remarkably, a century after it was thought to be dying out, the aristocracy is buoyant: wealth begets wealth. Aristocrats are prominent in every rich list of Britons. A study by two academics at the London South Bank University in 2019, found that Britain’s 600 aristocratic families had doubled their wealth since 2007 and were as rich as their Victorian ancestors. Looking at nearly 2,000 aristocratic wills, they found that while the rest of the country struggled to regain their wage levels after the 2008 crash, the aristocracy raked it in.
Historically, the status of aristocrats derived from their proximity to the monarch. They formed the members of the royal court; their bloodlines could be traced back to former kings and queens. They were defined by acquisitiveness, demanding lands in return for services rendered, enclosing common land when it suited them and using their positions to exploit commerce and trade.
Today, by dint of birth, they have access to wealth and social opportunities not available to others. Chris Bryant, the Labour MP and chair of the Commons committee on standards, notes in his book Entitled, a history of the aristocracy, that “land ownership itself is still the source of exorbitant wealth”. Fewer than 450 individuals are said to own half of the private land in rural Scotland. They include aristocrats like the dukes of Buccleuch and Westminster. At least 30 per cent of England and Wales, and possibly as much as 45 per cent, is estimated to be owned by aristocrats and landed gentry, according to data from the book Who Owns England?.
Putting wealth, including stately homes and estates, into discretionary trusts – a common practice – means that aristocratic families can avoid public scrutiny and inheritance tax.
And why not? After all, we suffer the monarch to keep her financial affairs shrouded and pay us tax only if she feels like it.
When ordinary citizens face financial hardship, they review their assets and sell things to meet their debts – their car, perhaps, or their jewellery. But by charging steep entry fees to the public for the privilege of entering their inherited piles, the aristocracy can be spared the need to sell off the Old Masters that hang on their walls.
Even when assets are sold, the tax terms are often highly favourable.
Just as land and wealth is concentrated and controlled, so the aristocracy maintain their exclusive institutions. Of 24 non-royal dukes in 2017, half went to Eton, helping maintain their grasp on politics and power (and their links to royalty). Aristocrats still play polo and go hunting, Bryant observes, and attend the same London clubs as their ancestors.
And the monarchy is at the heart of it. When the royals are at play – sailing or attending Royal Ascot, shooting deer or grouse on Scottish hillsides or managing their estates – they do so as part of a community of wealthy aristocrats.
Paul Johnson of the Institute of Fiscal Studies makes the general point about inheritance tax that in practice it’s regressive. The richest individuals have lawyers who help them avoid it: the full 40 per cent is often payable on relatively modest estates; those with assets of £1m to £8m pay an average of 20 per cent; and those with estates of around £10m pay 10 per cent. Incredibly, when the Duke of Westminster died in 2016, no tax was reportedly payable on the bulk of his £8bn estate. It is crying out for reform.
In Britain in 2021, we talk of a middle class, we talk of a working class and an underclass; we rarely talk of the upper class but it remains an intrinsic part of the invidious British class structure. Ninety-two hereditary peers even retain their seats in the House of Lords. The unearned status and wealth of the aristocracy and the monarchy, is a riposte to efforts to make Britain a fairer, more equal society. The time is coming to put the monarchy out to pasture and make the super-rich, including dukes and earls, pay their share.
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