Monarchy, inequality and just how rich is the queen?
By Max Lawson
Those who know me, know that I am not a royalist. This puts me firmly in a minority here in the UK. Six out of ten adults believe Britain should have a monarchy in the future, compared to just 22% who think Britain should have an elected head of state instead.
Last weekend we had two days of special bank holidays to make a long weekend to enable us all to celebrate the platinum jubilee of the Queen. Street parties were held all over the country and a huge concert at Buckingham palace.
I would say most of my British friends and colleagues are still supportive of the Queen and the monarchy, as largely a harmless tourist attraction and source of gossip. The Crown on Netflix certainly helped with that, which I must admit I watched and really enjoyed despite pretending not to half the time. My mother, who votes Green and has no time at the establishment, still talks fondly in first name terms of ‘Kate’.
But is the monarchy harmless? One thing is for sure the monarchy is very much an example of a family being rich simply by birth; it is the opposite of all concepts of meritocracy.
How rich is the queen?
Just how rich is the Queen? The consensus is that she is worth herself about £400 million pounds or $500 million dollars. So not a billionaire. But the broader family, known colloquially as ‘the firm’ or indeed ‘the monarchy PLC’ are estimated to be worth $28 billion.
The bulk of the property owned by the Queen is held on her behalf by the Crown Estate, which operates as a real estate business, with profits split between the state and the Queen. This includes almost all Regent Street in London for example.
Outside of London apart from a large number of castles and palaces, the Crown Estate owns 14 retail and shopping parks and three shopping centres, as well as a large portion of the UK’s offshore windfarms - mainly because the Crown owns the seabed around the whole of the UK out to a 12 nautical mile limit.
All told the Crown is the third biggest landowner in Britain, after the Forestry Service and the Ministry of Defence. Overall distribution of land in the UK is highly unequal, with 1% of the population owning over 50% of the land, many of these landowners still being Dukes, Lords and other so called ‘landed gentry’.
But back to the Queen. How does her wealth compare to the average Briton? I looked at the latest data on wealth from the Office of National Statistics and is seems that she is 26000 times more wealthy than someone in the bottom 10%, and 111 times wealthier than someone in the top 1%.
So pretty rich indeed.
But how much does this matter? Extreme wealth and extreme wealth inequality definitely matter, but why single out the Queen? After all there are around 50 billionaires in the UK, who are at least twice as rich as the Queen. What is it about the monarchy and their wealth that make it a special case?
I suppose for me it is everything that is symbolised by a monarchy; idolising inherited wealth and inherited power. The existence of a ruling class, that has ruled for many centuries, simply because of their bloodline.
In a country with such serious wealth inequality as the UK, where 2 million people cannot afford to eat every day, and 65% of our judges attended private school, the existence of the monarchy does seem to dignify and legitimise such inequality.
Yet, my monarchist friends can argue back, Sweden, Denmark and Norway all have much loved royal families, and are still (despite recent increases) some of the most equal countries on earth, with some of the highest levels of social mobility in the world too.
Monarchy and our colonial past
What about colonialism and empire though? There is something perhaps more unique about the British Monarchy in their connection to the British Empire and our colonial past. The Queen is still the Head of State for many commonwealth countries, and whilst UK citizens are still overwhelmingly supportive, the same cannot be said of the many nations in the Commonwealth. Last year Barbados rejected the Queen to become a republic and 54% of Australians support doing the same thing. The monarchy of course played a key role in the British empire, including in slavery. During a recent visit by Prince William and his wife Kate to the Caribbean, in Jamaica, the prime minister told them in an awkward meeting that the country would be “moving on” to become a republic, and a government committee in the Bahamas urged the royals to issue “a full and formal apology for their crimes against humanity’. Certainly, many citizens in Britain’s former colonies do not share the same benign view of the UK monarchy.
This connection to colonialism and injustice is perhaps also the reason why support for the monarchy amongst younger people in the UK is far less; only 33% of them think the monarchy should continue.
But my patient and forbearing royalist friends might respond, the French have an equally appalling colonial past, and doing away with their monarchy didn’t seem to lead to them holding back from terrible crimes from Indochina to Algeria. Why are we trying to pin our colonial crimes on the poor old Queen?
Equally the richest king in the world is actually the Thai king, and that is not because of any imperial past, and a blog like this about him in Thailand would risk imprisonment.
Certainly, monarchy is neither a necessary not a sufficient condition for wider inequality or brutal colonialism. But I still feel it does do harm because of the inherited wealth inequality and power it symbolises, and I also feel that the British monarchy has a unique position, given our history of colonialism, empire and slavery.
One thing I also feel is that the monarchy is also frustrating because it is a massive distraction. In some ways the monarchy is the opium of a largely secular UK public. All over the country families are facing a huge cost of living crisis and really struggling to meet ends meet. Meanwhile the Prime Minister faces a rebellion from his party over the many parties held in Downing Street during COVID-19 whilst ordinary Britons were unable to see their loved ones. The long Jubilee weekend was a welcome distraction.
Egalitarian Nordic Royals
Perhaps one compromise solution could be cutting the size of the monarchy down, without becoming a republic. The Norwegian King for example has a much more modest lifestyle, and his wealth is only 500 times that of the average Norwegian.
That would indeed I think be an improvement, but I still think we would be a lot better off as a nation if we moved on from the institution of monarchy. It would represent a clear step towards a more equal, fairer UK, which we desperately need, rather than distracting us with pageantry and palaces.
Anyhow, for now I avoided the Jubilee weekend by going instead with my family to Eurodisney, swapping one secular religion for another instead.
Have great weekends everyone!
"Crowd at Buckingham Palace for Diamond Jubilee Celebrations in 2012" by Defence Images is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.
The Queen of England and Duchess of Sussex. Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/oneterry/42101571324/
Figure 2: How much more wealth is owed by royalty than the average citizen? Source: Own calculations – Queens Wealth here and wealth of UK citizens here; Norwegian King’s Wealth here and Average Norwegian Wealth here.