The UK can be said to have a constitution only in the broad sense of a system of laws, customs, and conventions which define the form of the state. While this contains normative principles like Parliamentary Sovereignty, the monarchy still has undue influence on the running of the state.
The power exerted by the monarchy over Parliament can be seen in their rising cost to the public – a cost that is worth highlighting at a time when public sector workers, especially in the NHS, are being offered insultingly low wages, and thousands are losing their jobs.
What is called ‘The Crown’ is, effectively, the British state. This link in Britain’s unwritten constitution is the source of a number of problems. The term ‘The Crown’ can alternately refer to the monarch themselves, the rule of law, or the functions of government and civil service. This opacity hides some of the monarchy’s political power.
Such is the case with the Crown Estate, a body that manages Crown lands given up by George III in 1760. George didn’t want to bear the costs of paying for the increasingly expensive civil government as the British Empire grew, so he gave up many of his lands in exchange for a fixed income in return, and kept the income from the Duchies of Cornwall and Lancaster, which were negligible at the time.
Following the Sovereign Grant Act of 2011, the annual direct subsidy paid to the monarchy a year was fixed at 15-25 percent of profits from the Crown Estate lands. This currently stands at £70 million a year, while the total cost of the monarchy to the public is estimated at £345 million a year by campaign group Republic.
As well as the direct Sovereign Grant, the public also bears the cost of security for the Royal Family (over £100 million a year); and then there are the profits from the Duchies of Cornwall and Lancaster. Like the Crown Estate, these Duchies are also the property of ‘The Crown’. This confusion between Crown as state and Crown as monarch is at the heart of this problem.
Even the notoriously right-wing Taxpayers’ Alliance (TPA) note on their website that ‘The Crown Estate is not the private property of the Queen, instead it belongs to the Crown – a legal embodiment of the state and therefore entrusted and governed by Parliament.’ The TPA are annoyed about the clause in the Sovereign Grant Act which links the grant to a percentage of surplus revenue from the Crown Estate. The grant can rise if the Estate’s profits rise, but does not fall if they fall.
Although the disgraced Prince Andrew is no longer receiving his £250,000 salary as a ‘working royal’, according to the Express, he is still getting handouts from the Queen via the Duchy of Lancaster, which as we’ve seen is the property of the Crown, not the Queen as a private citizen. So Andrew is still receiving state funding. The monarchist Max Hastings, writing in the Times, argues that ‘Andrew must be permanently removed from the family’s books.’
It is a mark of the anachronistic and informal British constitutional arrangement that the Crown Estate has remained essentially unreformed for the past 281 years. In other monarchies, there is some pressure for reform – in the Netherlands, the Dutch government has agreed to review the cost of their Royal Family, even though the number of Dutch royals subsidised by the state is far less than in the UK. Yet, despite a recent Survation poll putting public support for a republic at 34 percent, even mild reform of the monarchy seems beyond our current politics.
A constitutional reckoning is long overdue. The Crown Estate lands, and the Duchies, should be public property, not a vague and legally opaque ‘corporation sole’ of the reigning monarch. Their extensive profits are desperately needed for better causes than subsidising a family worth around £20 billion.
Nationalising Crown lands and removing them from any kind of monarchical ownership would be a step towards reforming the UK’s unwritten constitution, and could pave the way for abolishing the monarchy when public opinion comes to favour it.
Abolishing the Sovereign Grant Fund would necessitate legislation that would have to be signed by the monarch; such a law would be mean a reckoning with the lobbying power of the monarchy, who are known to privately vet many laws before they go to Parliament. Such a direct challenge could expose the subtle, institutional power that they retain, allowing us to see how undemocratic Britain’s constitution actually is.