To Boris Johnson, she is “Elizabeth the Great” – “no other monarch has served us so well”, he observed this week. But ahead of the Platinum Jubilee celebrations, anti-monarchy campaigners have also been making their presence felt. The campaigning group Republic has plastered billboards with posters urging Britons to “Make Elizabeth the Last”. It’s time for “an honest grown-up debate about the monarchy”, says the group. Not least on the question of money
An expensive luxury?
It’s nothing, of course, that the Queen hasn’t heard many times over during her 70-year reign – she may even have noticed a cyclical pattern to the criticisms, albeit differently nuanced to suit the times. In today’s straitened environment, it comes as no surprise that “affordability” is a key theme, notes The Independent. Asked by Ipsos whether “the royal family is an expensive luxury the country cannot afford”, it seems “the nation is split” – 38% of those polled agreed, 36% disagreed, and the rest didn’t know.
Younger people were more likely to take a negative view. Public perceptions of the monarch’s wealth tell their own story about the changes wrought as she has progressed through what Vogue calls “a jewel box of jubilees”. Perhaps the first observation her older subjects might make is that the Queen “seems” poorer in the wealth stakes – at least compared with the vast self-made fortunes that have sprung up in the past 30 years. When The Sunday Times published its first Rich List in 1989, the Queen was at the top, with a fortune put at £5.2bn, which also made her one of the richest people in the world.
This year she romped home among the also-rans, with £370m. As the list’s compiler Robert Watts noted in 2018, this partly reflects how “new money” has come to eclipse inherited, land-based “old money” fortunes. But the real reason is that the somewhat hazy divide between the Queen’s personal wealth, and that of the monarchy itself, has become ever more crystalised. The upshot is that she now appears on the list in a strictly private capacity. Had the old rules still applied, she would arguably still be heading it. The separation of the monarch’s wealth began when George III ran into a spot of pecuniary difficulty in 1760. The price Parliament extracted for the government paying off his debts was surrendering his income from the Crown Estate in return for an annual stipend (originally known as the Civil List and replaced in 2011 by the Sovereign Grant) to pay for the business of monarchy. Normally, the Queen receives 15% of Crown Estate profits from the previous two years, with the rest going to government, says the BBC. But in 2017, it was agreed she would receive 25% for the next 10 years to help pay for a £369m refurbishment of Buckingham Palace. The Sovereign Grant cost the taxpayer £87.5m during 2020-2021 – an increase of £18m on the previous financial year.
The family firm
As well as deriving private income through personally-owned properties such as the Sandringham and Balmoral estates, and a substantial investment portfolio, the Queen also receives private income from the “Privy Purse”, derived from the Duchy of Lancaster – a distinct source of income from that of “The Firm”, says Forbes. The Prince of Wales, “Charles, Inc”, enjoys a similar arrangement with the Duchy of Cornwall. “Who gets to be part of the Firm and reap the benefits has become a point of great contention over the years.” After Harry and Meghan’s departure from official duties, and the ousting of Prince Andrew following the Epstein affair, “the number of full-time senior royals has been winnowed down to eight”. It promises to continue to be a contentious issue, as we explore below.