Advocates for constitutional monarchy argue that the head of state should be above the baseness of party politics. Furthermore, they claim the monarch’s neutrality in affairs of state avoids suspicion that legislation is enacted for personal gain. But does it? Recent revelations suggest that, far from being above politics, members of the royal family have regularly had input into draft legislation that could possibly affect its interests.
While Royal Assent for legislation that has navigated all parliamentary stages is a formality, what goes before is less transparent. The Guardian newspaper has revealed that the age-old convention of Consent, allows senior royals and their lawyers, to cast early and possibly critical eyes, over draft legislation that could affect them. As nothing is in writing, it’s difficult to establish the extent royal “observations” are taken into account during subsequent re-drafting.
Nonetheless, the well-established but somewhat opaque process, raises concerns about conflict of interest. For example, legislation on land ownership or agriculture is likely to have significant implications for royal estates. Similarly, the Sovereign Grant Act of 2011, reveals surprisingly little about the Queen’s immense wealth and offshore investments. The Duchy of Cornwall, Prince Charles’ multi-million-pound earner, was exempt from parts of a raft of legislation pertaining to south west England and the Scilly Isles. That exemption may have impacted on some of the Duchy’s residents. In particular, those with long leases who have effectively been blocked from buying the freehold to their homes. They claim, as their leases run down, it will become increasingly difficult to sell their homes or pass them to their children.
The prince’s “Spider Letters” were another less than transparent attempt to influence government policy. At one time, a relative of mine had planning responsibility for the area that included the Balmoral Estate. He and his committee chairman were regularly invited to tea and coincidentally I’m sure, discussion of planning issues impacting on the estate. There’s no suggestion of preferential treatment, but a local wishing to instal new windows or paint his front door, might have had difficulty arranging a similar meeting. It comes as no surprise to learn from our sister paper The National, how little the huge Balmoral Estate pays in business rates compared to other smaller enterprises.
The royal family has always been averse to revealing details about its business interests and wealth. There’s good reason why they describe themselves as “The Firm”. Is it possible that early sight of draft legislation on matters such as land ownership has helped maintain that opacity? The Crown Estate controls vast tracts of land throughout Scotland and the rest of the UK. But it’s not just land. Its reach extends to grasp the seabed around our coastline. It’s hard to understand and accept that anyone, other than Neptune, can own the seabed. Nonetheless, it’s proving to be another nice earner for the House of Windsor. Blocks of the seabed off the English and Welsh coasts were recently auctioned for windfarm development. The sale raised a mere £879 million and, given a following wind, will increase the Queen’s annual income by around £100m. ScotWind Leasing, the auction of the Scottish seabed, has been paused temporarily, raising hopes that more of the proceeds will find their way to the Treasury, rather than into the poke of one of the world’s wealthiest women.
There’s little evidence of that wealth “trickling down”. What does trickle down, is a resistance to transparency and a sense of entitlement and privilege. Those same attitudes are embedded in the political establishment, particularly at Westminster. The worst offending MPs clearly believed that outrageous expense claims were their right, not a scandal. Entitlement and privilege are personified in a cabinet of old Etonians and the languid superiority of the likes of Jacob Rees-Mogg. Little wonder cartoonist Steve Bell depicts Keir Starmer as Jeeves to Boris Johnson’s Bertie Wooster.
Any suggestion of an elected head of state invariably leads to an outbreak of “whataboutery”. Sure, we don’t want President Piers Morgan or President Nigel Farage, but we don’t have to look far for a grown-up working alternative. Successive Irish presidents, including Patrick Hillery, Mary Robinson, Mary McAleese and Michael Higgins enhanced the reputation of both their office and country at home and abroad. Indeed, the standing of six of Ireland’s 14 Presidents was so high, they were elected unopposed. I’ll never forget the genuine warmth with which a Dublin rugby crowd greeted the pre-match appearance of Mary McAleese. In 2014, supporters of Scottish independence must have been sorely surprised and disappointed when the SNP proposed that the monarch should remain head of state of an independent Scotland.
Even the most committed republican is likely to accept that the present Queen has provided great service and continuity. Time marches on however, and a changing of the guard can’t be far off. The inevitable change offers an opportunity for debate on the way ahead, especially as the Queen’s successors are unlikely to enjoy similar personal respect and regard. While it’s very possible that public opinion, in England at least, would remain strongly in favour of the status quo, there is still a strong case for review and reform. Reducing royal numbers, defining and scrutinising “The Firm’s” role in the political process and greater financial transparency would be as good a place to start as any.
Our columns are a platform for writers to express their opinions. They do not necessarily represent the views of The Herald.