Capital’s Crowning Glory

The monarchy isn't just an anachronism or a circus – it’s one of Britain’s most powerful businesses which uses its influence to shore up its own wealth.

The Paradise Papers revealed that the Duchy of Lancaster—the Queen’s private estate—had used offshore private equity funds to avoid paying tax on its holdings. (Liam McBurney - Pool / Getty Images)

In an increasingly long list of ‘scandals’ surrounding Prince Andrew, the latest is that a £750,000 ‘wedding gift’ for his daughter Princess Beatrice was sent to him from an alleged fraudster. Nehebat Isbilen, wife of a former politician jailed in Turkey, claims that businessman Selman Turk misappropriated her finances and sent the money to Andrew on false pretences, after she was told it was to help with her passport application. A transcript of a phone conversation between Andrew’s former aide Amanda Thirsk and bankers acting for Isbilen shows both say ‘it’s a gift for the wedding’, demonstrating the monarchy’s knowledge of the cash payment.

None of the Royals have been accused of wrongdoing in this particular case. However, there have been other occasions where Andrew has been involved in mysterious cash transactions. In 2007, Andrew sold his Sunninghill Park estate to a mysterious company in the British Virgin Islands, which paid £3 million over the asking price despite the property having been on the market for five years. The buyer turned out to be Timur Kulibayev, son-in-law of Prince Andrew’s friend Nursultan Nazarbayev, the Kazakhstani dictator. Andrew also apparently received £4 million commission for using his relationship with the Kazakh oligarch Kenges Rakishev, to broker a deal between them and Aras Capital, a Swiss finance company, and EYDAP, a Greek water firm.

The ‘Black Sheep’?

Due to Andrew’s various misdeeds over the years, not least the accusations against him of sexual abuse, he tends to be labelled a ‘black sheep’ in the Royal Family—one that’s tarnishing an otherwise respectable institution through a series of ‘dodgy’ deals and associations. His friendship with billionaire convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein, for example, is often written off in royal history as an anomalous case of Andrew’s bad judgement—while Charles’s friendship with sex offender Jimmy Saville is conveniently overlooked.

Indeed, there are other cases beyond Andrew where the monarchy is associated with ‘dodgy’ dealings. The Prince’s Foundation, Prince Charles’s charitable body, is currently being investigated for various ‘cash for honours’ deals. An independent investigation found that Charles’s aid, Michael Fawcett, coordinated with so-called ‘fixers’ to help elite individuals secure honours in exchange for charity donations, including a knighthood and British citizenship for Mahfouz Marei Mubarak bin Mahfouz, a Saudi billionaire.

Meanwhile, the Paradise Papers revealed that the Duchy of Lancaster—the Queen’s private estate—had used offshore private equity funds to avoid paying tax on its holdings. The papers showed that the Duchy of Lancaster’s investments had put funds into an array of businesses, including retailer BrightHouse, Britain’s largest rent-to-own company, which has been ‘criticised for exploiting thousands of poor families and vulnerable people’ by charging huge interest rates on purchases using cost credit.

Elsewhere, in the wake of rising energy bills in the UK, a story from 2010 has been recirculating on social media which revealed that the Queen tried to claim from the state poverty fund to heat Buckingham Palace. The fund was earmarked for hospitals and low-income families to pay energy bills, and the Royals’ application was apparently rejected as ministers feared it would be a potential ‘public relations disaster’.

This extends beyond money. In 2021, the Guardian unveiled a set of documents regarding the ‘Queen’s consent’, which refers to the practice requiring government ministers to seek the Queen’s permission before debating laws which will affect her (already pretty objectionable, when you think about it). The documents showed that the monarchy had used the procedure to persuade government ministers to alter laws in its favour, including a ‘transparency law’ which would have revealed the Queen’s wealth, and road safety laws which would have affected the royal estates.

Royal Capitalism

The point here is that Andrew is not just one shady individual in an otherwise upstanding institution (although he is indeed shady). By singling out Andrew, we ignore the other cases in which the monarchy has been associated with using individuals or legal structures for the purposes of accumulating wealth and reproducing its own power.

In my book Running the Family Firm: How the Monarchy Manages Its Image and Our Money, I take issue with the common framing of monarchy as an archaic institution, an anachronism to corporate and capitalist forms of wealth, and therefore irrelevant. Instead, I suggest that it might be more useful for us to think about the monarchy itself as a corporation, the Firm. The Firm is invested in reproducing its power and wealth over time.

The Firm has always adapted to various periods of capitalism. The land they have held for hundreds of years, much of it stolen during the time of the Reformation, is now overseen by the Crown Estate, which is run as an independent commercial business. It has also been accused of dodgy deals after telling tenants of Crown Estate properties that they would have to buy their houses at inflated prices or face eviction, before residents later discovered the homes were sold off for much less than they were asked to pay, apparently to make a quick profit.

Hundreds of years ago, when global trade revolved around imperial colonisation, enslavement, and genocide, the Firm was granting Royal Charters to corporations like the East India Company. The Duke of York was governor of the Company of Royal Adventurers Trading to Africa. The company transported over 3,000 African people to Barbados, many with the initials ‘DY’ burned into their chests to signify their belonging to the Duke of York. Both the Duke (who later became James II) and Charles II invested private funds in the company.

There are patterns here between the Firm and other corporate organisations. Global corporations like Apple and Nike were also embroiled in the Paradise Papers, for example. We’re all aware that these large companies circumvent social responsibility in pursuit of profit, yet the monarchy is still put in ‘another category’—one that excludes it from conversations on global elites and corporate power.

Another figure put in the same separate category is the Duke of Westminster, who is Britain’s youngest billionaire after inheriting the family estate. The estate has seen its portfolio diversified through its property company, Grosvenor Group, with global investments across the UK, Europe and the Americas.

These are no out-of-touch aristocrats with crumbling estates. They are adapting to modern capitalist formations—but they are hidden behind a veneer of culture and heritage which allows them to circumvent critique.

Why Does it Matter?

One thing I was repeatedly asked while writing my book was ‘why does it matter?’ While there are billionaires buying up more and more of our global institutions, and while millions still live in poverty, why bother with a monarchy that is merely a stalwart in the British landscape?

But the monarchy is not separate from global inequalities. Having a monarchy at the pinnacle of society entrenches a particular class structure, and embeds a differential attitude in the British public. It creates a system where corporate elites and aristocratic elites play the same games in order to, for example, avoid paying tax.

Singling out individuals as lone dodgy dealers means we don’t see the bigger picture: all the questionable agreements, protocols, and relationships that surround the institution. Likewise, framing the Queen as an elderly lady clutching a handbag means we fail to see her as the head of one of the most powerful institutions in the world.

If we see the monarchy solely as symbolic, we allow it to avoid accountability. It’s time for a serious conversation among the Left, not just about ‘shady’ royals doing ‘dodgy deals’, but reckoning with the entire institution of monarchy that has, for hundreds of years, been at the centre of the destructive force of capitalism.