Royal Riches: What the Monarchy Costs Great Britain

Royal finances: what the monarchy costs Great Britain
AP/Lefteris Pitarakis

Here's a paradox about Great Britain. In many ways, it's a more progressive country than the United States, its colonial offspring. It has a more generous welfare state (including national health care), a more progressive tax structure, and a third major political party to the left of Labour. Most workers are entitled to at least 28 paid days of vacation per year, and same-sex marriage will soon be legal throughout England and Wales.

And yet Great Britain maintains one of the most conservative institutions on the planet: a hereditary monarchy, something Americans would never countenance. This despite the fact that King Charles I lost two civil wars, leading to his own decapitation and the short-lived abolition of the monarchy, in the mid-17th century.

Though the royal family's political significance has long since been reduced to the ceremonial, the Windsors still have a massive financial footprint. As sovereign, the Queen owns the Crown Estate, a property portfolio worth £8.1 billion ($12.4 billion) as of last month -- the first time its value has exceeded £8 billion. It includes a lot of prime real estate -- "large parts of London's West End," "15 retail parks in various towns and cities," shopping centers, offices, agricultural lands, forests, and "most UK coastline," according to the BBC -- and 15 percent of its annual revenues is used to fund the monarchy. The rest goes to the Treasury.

As a result of the these assets' recent performance, the Queen is getting a raise: the Sovereign Grant, as her cut of the Crown Estate's revenues is called, is set to increase next year from £36.1 million to £37.89 million (more than $55 million) -- a gain of 5 percent, and the second consecutive bump to her allowance.

"The Crown Estate as a whole dates from the time of the Norman Conquest," explains the monarchy's official website -- more than 900 years ago -- but the current arrangement came into effect in 1760. That was the year King George III -- the intolerable tyrant of the Declaration of Independence -- signed the revenues over to the Treasury, and in return stopped having to pay for the civil government, the national debt, and his own personal debt. Those expenses were covered by something called the Civil List, funded by the Treasury and supplemented more recently by grants from other departments, until the Sovereign Grant Act of 2011. Buckingham Palace called the change "a modern, transparent and simpler way of funding the head of state," but opponents of the monarchy are unconvinced. "Pegging royal funding to Crown Estate revenue makes no sense at all," said the group Republic, which advocates replacing the Queen (or King) with an elected head of state. "The two are not related. Crown Estate revenue has always been there to provide funds for the government."

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Republic has challenged the monarchy's claims of transparency, as well as official estimates of how much the royal family costs the country. In a 2010 report, "The 'Value for Money Monarchy' Myth," the group claimed that taxpayers shelled out £202.4 million ($310.7 million) the previous year to fund the monarchy, "around five times the official figure published by the royal household". The disparity is explained by the costs of "round-the-clock security, lavish royal visits and lost revenue from the Duchies of Lancaster and Cornwall" (partially tax-exempt real estate holdings belonging to the crown), all of which were ignored in the numbers made public.

The counterargument is that the revenues generated by the Crown Estate, surrendered by George III 250 years ago, either far exceed the amount of money allotted to the royals or come close to matching it, depending on which figure you use for the monarchy's cost. So the Windsors are either a source of profit for the government, or a negligible expense. But British republicans don't accept that the Crown Estate belongs to the Monarch: As the Centre for Citizenship insists, "The Crown Estate is, in fact, the property of the people of Britain. The Windsors have no more right to it than the Prime Minister has to 10 Downing Street."

Graham Smith of Republic agrees:

The Queen owns property in an official capacity and in a private capacity. Some things she owns as Queen Elizabeth, other things she owns as Elizabeth Windsor.

Property owned by Elizabeth Windsor is rightly hers and will remain so in a republic. Property owned by Queen Elizabeth would cease to be hers if she ceases to be Queen.

So if Parliament declares the throne vacant and passes the Crown to the people, as it has had the power to do since 1689, then Great Britain loses its monarch, but "the nation keeps the palaces, the art, the jewels and the land."

Smith believes that all this would be on sound constitutional footing, but beyond the legalities, he sees an objectionable mindset lying behind the financial case against Britain's becoming a republic: "the underlying message of the 'it's going to cost us millions/billions' argument is that we should allow ourselves to be held ransom by one family." And it's not as though the Windsors would be hard up for cash if they were to lose their income from lands held in trust: According to Forbes, the Queen's personal net worth is estimated to be $500 million.

As for the claim that the monarchy stimulates the British economy by encouraging tourism, the comedian Mark Steel has a ready reply: "Do the tourists who visit Paris stand at the top of the Eiffel Tower and think 'Hmm, well it's quite a nice view, but the lack of a monarch seems to spoil it'?" Steel may be onto something: According to Travel + Leisure's July 2012 list of "Europe's Most-Visited Tourist Attractions," Versailles, the home of France's final king, is the continent's most popular palace, seeing more annual visitors than any site in Britain. In fact, all four of the British attractions on the list are museums; there's not a royal spot among them.