Tuesday, 30 June 2009

Off with their overheads

Guest post by Paul Richards

In the six years since the Fabian Commission of the Future of the Monarchy little has been done to shed light on the murky world of Royal finances. The accounts published this week only tell a partial story. The Royals are very adept at keeping our noses out of their financial affairs. For example, the accounts do not cover the cost of security for the Royals - a big ticket item if ever there was one. Nor do we have full disclosure of the management of aspects of the Royal estates, with the properties rented at below market rates. The House of Commons public accounts committee faced obstruction in getting the figures from the Royal Household, and the committee's frustration is all too apparent in the report they published earlier this year.

The Royal finances are about as transparent as a fog in the English Channel. This creates a polarised debate. Blood-red Republicans can claim the cost of the monarchy is much higher than we are being told. This week Graham Smith from the Republic pressure group called the monarchy "a hugely expensive institution and we should be looking at massive cuts".

Over at theroyalist.com Joanne Leyland pointed out that the monarchy costs a mere 69 pence per person. Every time the accounts are published, we are encouraged by royalists to believe that the cost is equivalent is some item of household expenditure: a loaf of bread, two pints of milk, a cup of coffee. Soon we'll have enough for a nice breakfast.

I've always found the debate about the cost of the royals somewhat sterile. Republics cost cash too. Heads of State still need to live and work somewhere, to travel in armoured cars, jets and helicopters, and to have armed guards (with or without big hats).

The point is that without clear, simple accounts which cover the true total amount, the debate about how much our monarchy costs will be clouded by inaccuracies and wilful misuse of figures. So the first reform must be to amalgamate the different sources of income funded by the taxpayer - the civil list which pays for the royal household, the grants-in-aid for things such as communication and travel, and funding paid for from government departmental spending. These should be streamlined into a single payment, agreed by Parliament on a three-year settlement. This is how we fund local government and other public institutions. This would mean the true cost of the monarchy would come under democratic control and scrutiny, and the Keeper of the Privy Purse would be answerable to our elected representatives.

A second reform is also needed. The Royals need to raise more money themselves. Prince Charles has long demonstrated an entrepreneurial streak, but that has not been shared by the rest of 'the firm'. Take the example of allowing visitors into Buckingham Palace. Last year, this raised £7 million. But the Palace was only open for 63 days. If Buckingham Palace was open for, say, 100 days a year then the Royals wouldn't be facing a £1.5 million shortfall in their funding, which they will be asking the taxpayer to meet. The White House is open most of the year; so is Windsor Castle. So why not Buckingham Palace? And here's a truly radical idea: what about opening some of the rooms of Clarence House, St James's Palace, and Kensington Palace to the public? The last (and only) time I was at Clarence House, my breath was taken away by the quantity and quality of the artworks on display. Art lovers would jump at the chance to have a look around some of the ground-floor rooms, which are already used for private receptions and events.

Anthony Giddens calls modern society 'post-traditional', with every institution and custom under pressure to justify itself. The Monarchy is perhaps the archetype of a traditional institution which must justify itself in the modern age. It is an ever-evolving and changing institution; that is how it has survived for over a thousand years. Now it needs to adapt to the age of transparency by opening the books: not just the ones we saw this week, but also the ones locked in the desk drawer.

Paul Richards is a former chair of the Fabian Society, and author of the Fabian pamphlet on the monarchy Long to Reign Over Us?


Sunder Katwala said...


Good post: thanks. And welcome back.

Sensible reforms, which ought to command broad support, except as usual from the odd alliance of republicans who fear useful reforms might bolster the monarchy, and staunch monarchists who for some reason lack all confidence and think the tiniest change could see it all shatter.

And great headline!

Will 883 said...

Of course a head of state in a republic would cost money, but have you had a look at the comparisons?

Germany's head of state costs about £10m and Rep of Ireland's is about £3m if my memory serves me correctly.

Even with the Buckingham Palace PR team's vast underestimate of £41.5m each year (not including security and tax dodges) they cost a huge amount more than comparible republics.