In the wake of establishment commemorations of the life of Prince Philip, John Rees looks at the real place of the monarchy in British politics
No democrat can be a monarchist.
Government chosen by election is simply, logically, incompatible with individuals occupying positions of power merely because they were born the sons or daughters of families who already have political power.
It was on this principle that the English people fought a civil war, made a revolution and cut off their king’s head in the 17th century.
When, after 11 years of being one of the first Republics in the world, a monarch was restored to the British throne in 1660 it came to be understood that no King or Queen would ever seek to rule without parliament.
The Victorian political theorist Walter Bagehot, for instance, wrote that the monarchy was merely a ‘decorative’ part of the constitution, and that real power was exercised by the cabinet.
But even now, in the 21st century, is this really true?
The royal family is, apart from anything else and beyond dispute, very wealthy. And money is one sort of power. More than this, recent reports have revealed how much the royal family routinely seeks to directly and personally change decisions of government.
Let’s take a look at how the hereditary power of the royal family still has an impact on the course of British political life.
The oldest form of wealth in Britain is landed wealth. Long before there were corporations and banks, indeed long before there was a stable currency, wealth and power were measured by how much land you and your family owned. In medieval Britain those who owned little or no land were forced to work for those who owned a lot of land.
The National Trust and the Forestry Commission are now some of the biggest landowners. But astoundingly in 21st century Britain some of the largest landowners are the same as they have been for hundreds of years: the royal family and the aristocracy, the Church of England, and Oxford University.
The Crown and another 26 aristocratic estates own a total of nearly 1.4 million acres of land~over twice the entire land area owned by the National Trust and nearly three times the total land owned by Pension Funds in the UK.
So the land owned by the Crown and the aristocracy covers an area over three times the size of Greater London or a third as much again as the total area of Cornwall. The Crown controls more than half of the UK’s shoreline.
Crown Land is treated as a state asset, not to be sold by the monarch, and its revenues come to the state and the Queen is paid a percentage of these profits. But the Queen can and does also own private property as a private individual in addition to Crown Land. So Balmoral Castle in Scotland is the private personal possession of the Queen, not part of Crown Land.
But the area of land owned is not even half the story. Some land is more valuable than other land. And Crown Land is some of the most valuable in the country. Indeed the value of the Crown’s urban property, £4 billion, is four times greater than the value of its rural landholdings.
The Crown owns, for instance, the entirety of Regent Street, around half of St James’ in London’s West End and retail property across the UK including in Oxford, Exeter, Nottingham, Newcastle and Harlow. The Crown owns or part owns shopping centres in Oxford and Exeter and part of the Bluewater retail park in Kent. It also owns retail parks in Leeds, Milton Keynes, Merseyside, Slough, Swansea, Slough, Portsmouth, Harlow, Maidstone, Hemel Hempstead, Nottingham, Edinburgh, Warwick, Cheltenham and Jersey.
The Windsor estate controls Ascot racecourse, golf clubs, hotels, farms and woodland. In Scotland the Crown owns fishing rights on many rivers, oyster and mussel fishing revenues, and mining rights throughout its holdings.
Prince Charles’ Duchy of Cornwall estate benefits from a feudal law which means that any person dying without making a will in Cornwall forfeits their wealth to the Prince. Since 2006 Charles has trousered over £1 million of dead people’s money this way. In total the cash pile that Charles is sitting on from these legacies amounts to £3.3 million. In all the £800 million Duchy of Cornwall estate provides Charles with £19 million a year in private profit.
With wealth comes power, specifically the power not to obey the laws of the land in the way that every other citizen of the country is required to do.
The Prince of Wales' Duchy of Cornwall is not, for instance, subject to planning permission or planning consent in the way that any other builder would be. This means that Charles can avoid fines of up to £50,000 that would be levied against anyone else breaking these planning laws. Every other landlord has to grant squatters rights if they occupy land for 10 years. But for the Prince that time limit is 60 years. Normal landlords must allow their leaseholders to buy the freehold on property. But not the Prince, who can hold leaseholders in that conditions forever.
The Duchy only pays tax voluntarily and has free advice from government lawyers. It also benefits from exemptions that no other private sector body enjoys. For instance, Charles pays no corporation tax or capital gains tax on his business enterprises.
The Prince of Wales also seems to have a veto over new legislation that would affect his private interests. Since 2005, ministers from 6 government departments have sought Charles’ consent for bills on everything from road safety and gambling to the London Olympics. Constitutional lawyers describe this as a ‘nuclear deterrent’ over government lawmaking.
Charles has long sought to influence many aspects of government policy. Charles’ ‘black spider memos’, so called because of the Prince’s scrawled hand-writing, are attempts to influence the course of government on a wide range of issues.
The government attempted to keep them secret in the face of a legal challenge from the The Guardian newspaper. But recently the courts ruled that the government had been wrong to prevent the publication of the Prince’s attempts to influence government.
When the Attorney General Dominic Grieve in the last government sought to veto the publication of the Prince’s letters, he claimed their release ‘would be seriously damaging to his role as future monarch because, if he forfeits his position of political neutrality as heir to the throne, he cannot easily recover it when he is king’.
This is an essential admission by the government’s top law officer that Charles has already forfeited that neutrality, and that the government is keen to stop this fact becoming public.
Charles has been writing these letters to ministers since Harold Wilson was prime minster in 1969. Charles wrote to ministers in Tony Blair’s government no less than 27 times in just 8 months between September 2004 and April 2005. The letters were sent to ministers in the Cabinet Office and the departments responsible for business, health, schools, environment, culture and Northern Ireland.
The previous Tory-Lib Dem coalition spent hundreds of thousands of pounds of tax payers money blocking The Guardian newspaper's Freedom of Information request to see and publish the letters before the courts forced the government to back down.
The reason is simple: the letters, described by a former Attorney General as ‘particularly frank’, have undermined the myth that the monarchy has no direct influence on government policy. They show that one man, simply because of the family that he was born into, has an unparalleled access to the highest levels of government, access that is closed to any other citizen.
The Guardian’s actions in pursuing this story are practically unique in the history of British media. Usually the monarchy can rely on the British press to keep silent on any embarrassing story about the monarchy.
Sometimes this involves merely insignificant gossip, as when the British press refused to print pictures of the Prince Harry naked or Kate Middelton topless.
But the secrecy extends to much more serious matters. In the 1930s newspapers in Britain remained silent on the relationship between the future King Edward VIII and American divorcee Wallis Simpson~the relationship that eventually led to Edward abdicating the throne. And they remained silent even while the news was being reported in the US.
The tradition continues. The contract with the BBC to film the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton stipulated that the footage could not be used for humorous or satirical purposes. Australian comedy programme The Chaser had to be pulled from the schedules because it breached the ban.
During the making of a BBC1 programme about the Commonwealth and the Queen’s Silver Jubilee a BBC producer said that it would not be suitable to interview Australian prime minister Julia Gillard because ‘she is pro-republican’ and would not fit the film’s ‘positive angle’.
In 2011 the BBC issued a grovelling apology to the Queen when senior reporter Frank Gardiner made public the monarch’s privately expressed frustration at the government’s failure to arrest and deport radical Muslim cleric Abu Hamza~and the fact that she had spoken to the Home Secretary about the matter.
Gardiner told the BBC’s flagship Today programme: ‘She spoke to the home secretary at the time and said, surely this man must have broken some laws. Why is he still at large? He was conducting these radical activities and he called Britain a toilet. He was incredibly anti-British and yet he was sucking up money from this country for a long time. He was a huge embarrassment to Muslims, who condemned him.’
Gardiner continued that the Queen, ‘like anybody… was upset that her country and its subjects were being denigrated by this man’. But there’s the rub. The Queen is not ‘like anybody’… because not anyone can call up the Home Secretary and lobby them over matters they find disturbing.
Both the Palace, which refused to comment on the story, and the BBC instantly realised that they had revealed the still existing political power of the monarchy, a power it is not supposed to have.
Within hours both Gardiner and the BBC had issued an apology saying that the story was ‘wholly inappropriate’.
As a matter of fact the monarch does not need to make a special effort to get the government to hear her views. She meets that prime minster every week for precisely this purpose. No one ever reveals what is said at these weekly briefings. Tony Blair went further than most in his memoirs when he revealed that at his first meeting with the Queen she acted with ‘hauteur’, telling him ‘You are my tenth prime minister. The first was Winston. That was before you were born’.
It’s a telling few sentences. Clearly, for the Queen, elected prime ministers come and go, but the monarchy is always there.
Royals and the arms industry
BAE systems, Britain’s leading arms manufacturer recently sold 72 Typhoon fighter jets to the Saudi Arabian dictatorship. The original offer from the Saudis was £4.4 billion, but when the deal was done Ian King, BAE’s chief executive, said the public was ‘never going to know’ how much the company was eventually paid.
But one thing we do know is that on the very eve of the day the deal was signed Prince Charles was in the Saudi capital Riyadh, dressed in traditional robes and joining the Saudi princes in a sword dance.
The palace denied the Princes, Saudi and British, discussed the arms deal. But Andrew Smith from the Campaign Against the Arms Trade says: ‘It is clear that Prince Charles has been used by the UK government and BAE Systems as an arms dealer’. This was Charles’ tenth visit to the Saudi regime and was made at the request of the Foreign Office.
An investigation into a previous UK-Saudi arms deal, Margaret Thatcher’s sale of Tornado fighters in the Al Yamamah deal, was blocked by Tony Blair on ‘national security grounds’.
Prince Andrew made clear his view of the Serious Fraud Office investigation of the Al Yamamah deal at a business lunch in Kyrgyzstan. The US ambassador was present and reported back to Washington on her shocking encounter with the British royal: "Rude language à la British … [Andrew] turned to the general issue of promoting British economic interests abroad. He railed at British anti-corruption investigators, who had had the 'idiocy' of almost scuttling the al-Yamama deal with Saudi Arabia."
One senior former diplomat commented on Prince Andrew’s outburst saying: ‘Andrew is an idiot and puts it crudely, and it was wrong to suggest the bribery was acceptable’ but he is ‘a net asset to Britain. Built in the price is the fact he does speak his mind, and he does have a short fuse. But he gets on with the Saudis, who like a prince’.
Former South African MP Andrew Feinstein resigned in protest over BAE bribery allegations. He has his own experience of the royal family’s arms interests: ‘the royal family was involved in trying to persuade South Africa to buy BAE's Hawk jets, despite the air force not wanting the planes that cost two and a half times the price of their preferred aircraft. As an ANC MP at the time, I was told that £116m in bribes had been paid to key decision-makers and the ANC itself. The royal family's attitude is part of the reason that BAE will never face justice in the UK for its corrupt practices.’
Strangely perhaps a Buckingham Palace spokesman who spoke to The Guardian had much the same view, with an added tinge of colonial snobery: ‘Middle East potentates like meeting princes. He comes in as the son of the Queen and that opens doors that otherwise would remain closed. He can raise problems with a crown prince and four or five weeks later we discover that the difficulties have been overcome and the contract can be signed. He brings immeasurable value in smoothing the path for British companies. We don’t send him to developed countries like France and Sweden, where a member of the royal family would not make a difference, but in developing countries, or the far east, a prince can get in because of who he is.’
But Andrew’s particular form of charm worked as well on dictators whether or not of the royal variety. He is reported to have had a close friendship with Saif Gaddafi, son of Colonel Gaddafi, and hosted a lunch at Buckingham Palace for the son-in-law of Tunisian dictator, Ben Ali, despite being warned of his corrupt activities by the British Embassy in Tunis.
As for the Saudi government, the biggest market for UK arms companies, they are now using the arms they buy in an unprovoked attack on neighbouring Yemen.
The ‘soft power’ of the monarchy
In the world of international diplomacy it is usual to distinguish between a nation’s hard power and its soft power. The hard power of the US, for instance, is its military capacity and its economic strength. Its soft power might be the cultural influence of Hollywood, the social influence of its press, or the good feeling felt by millions of children around the globe towards Ronald McDonald or Captain America.
So it is with the British monarchy. Part of its power, as we have seen, is hard power. The power of wealth, of landed property, of direct political influence. But perhaps it has even greater influence in its exercise of soft power~the ideological and cultural influence that the Royal Family exerts in British society.
The Royal Family is quite deliberately used by the British establishment as a traditional symbol of a hierarchical and elitist society.
After all, if people in Britain can be got to accept one incredibly wealthy individual whose position as the nominal head of state and church, and chief of the armed forces, is hereditary, then why should they not accept an entire ruling elite based on similarly undemocratic principles.
The existence of the monarchy is based on the idea of perpetual inequality as the natural order. It bolsters the old adages that seek to ensure that the status quo remains undisturbed. This is the world where ‘the poor are always with us’, where there will always be ‘the rich man in his castle and the poor man at his gate’.
This is a world where the poor and disadvantaged are supposed to find solace in gazing on the finery of the Royals. Where everything from the Crown Jewels to Kate Middleton’s wedding dress is supposed to bring ‘glamour’ to lives where even small luxuries cost a week’s wages.
The majority of the press encourage us to forget our own troubles and worry about the happiness or otherwise of the characters in the Royal soap opera. William and Kate’s happy marriage, Diana and Charles unhappy marriage, are talked about as if they matter more than the trials and joys of our own friends and relatives.
The unacceptable racist ramblings of the Duke of Edinburgh are suppressed, the unfortunate nonsense let slip by Prince Andrew is excused, the less appealing members of the family, like Fergie, are hidden from view or expelled from the clan.
Every charitable gesture or good work, on the other hand, is magnified. It is the work of PR experts, spin-doctors and the loyal royal correspondents. But it is a national myth. And it is only partly believed.
Despite the years of pro-Royal propaganda some 30 percent think that the UK would be better off without a monarch. That figure rises to 50 percent in Scotland. Some 60 percent are against Prince Charles becoming King when the current Queen dies.
There is likely to be a crisis of confidence, if not a constitutional crisis when the Queen is succeeded by Charles. It will be a moment when ordinary citizens in the UK have to examine whether an hereditary, hugely wealthy, unconstitutionally influential, politically reactionary institution is still the best adornment of a supposedly democratic society in the 21st century.
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John Rees is a writer, broadcaster and activist, and is one of the organisers of the People’s Assembly. His books include ‘The Algebra of Revolution’, ‘Imperialism and Resistance’, ‘Timelines, A Political History of the Modern World’, ‘The People Demand, A Short History of the Arab Revolutions’ (with Joseph Daher), ‘A People’s History of London’ (with Lindsey German) and The Leveller Revolution. He is co-founder of the Stop the War Coalition.
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