For Libertarians, the British Monarchy Is the Least of Our Worries
In Britain as in America, the modern metropolitan left at this point seems to be defined by little more than its bemusing inclination toward self-sabotage. From their fetishistic seeking out of increasingly obscure groups to ‘save’ from increasingly minor injustices, to their support of economic policies that would most hurt the very people they claim to stand for, one might almost think progressives were consciously campaigning to limit the broader appeal of their own movement.
This is no more true than in the case of the British left’s open disdain for the Royal Family. Given that the monarchy is currently experiencing amongst the highest approval ratings in its history, with scarcely 9% of Britons seeing it as a negative aspect of public life, one might think that the latte-quaffing denizens of the London bubble would pick their battles and opt to remain silent on this particular issue. Yet their sneering and often misinformed attacks against this most British of institutions continue, seen no more clearly than in the outrage surrounding the recent announcement that the Royal budget was to increase by £6 million in 2018–19.
What luck then that the always impartial BBC was at the ready to offer its take on the matter. Beginning their article with a particularly unflattering picture of the Queen, photoshopped to appear to be leering hungrily at a stack of £20 notes, Britain’s state-funded media conglomerate grimly informs us that the 8% rise in the Queen’s “income from public funds” will go ahead, despite its already having risen by £2 million last year. Their article then goes on to lament that the Royal Family’s travel expenditures “cost the taxpayer” £4.5 million during the years 2016 and 2017. The BBC’s royal correspondent, Peter Hunt, then highlights a few seemingly frivolous expenditures by the Royal Family over the past several years, arguing that the use of “generous” royal funds for such things could become “toxic.” Hunt then invokes the tragedy of the recent Grenfell Tower fire, during which 80 of London’s lowest income residents were burned to death in their homes, in order to remind us (impartially, I am certain) of the great divide which still exists between rich and poor at the time of the Royals’ £6 million raise.
Parliament, Taxes, and the Monarchy
For anyone approaching this issue from a free-market perspective, it would certainly be difficult to defend the spending of taxpayers’ money by the Royal Family. However, given a choice between seeing taxpayers’ money used by the Royal Family for their mainly charitable purposes — the Queen herself is patron to well over 500 charities, with the broader Royal Family actively fundraising for almost 3,000 charities worldwide — or seeing taxpayers’ money used by the BBC to purposefully spread misinformation in the pursuit of their political agenda, surely even the most ardently anti-tax libertarian would prefer the former.
Yet it is not even true, strictly speaking, to say that the Queen takes her income from the looting of taxpayers, as does the rest of the government. In fact, the Queen’s income comes from the profits of the land she owns, known as the Crown Estate, which amounts to around £12 billion worth of property, including many valuable locations in central London. Since the invasion by William the Conqueror in 1066, English monarchs had used the profits from the Crown lands to finance the civil service, the national defence, and the sovereign debt, as well as their own personal debts. However as the size of the state increased, the cost of these expenditures became increasingly burdensome to the Crown, such that the control of part of the Crown lands’ revenues was eventually ceded to Parliament after the Glorious Revolution of 1688, in exchange for relieving the monarch of the duty to finance the national debt and the Royal Navy. Finally, by 1760 the ever-expanding cost of supporting the state’s civil service had become too much for the monarch alone to manage, leading George III to surrender the entirety of the revenues from the Crown lands to Parliament, an agreement which each subsequent monarch has renewed to this day. Consequently, although the Crown Estate is technically still owned by Elizabeth II, its revenues go not to her but directly to the Treasury, which then grants her a stipend of around 15% of the Estate’s profits for that year. Indeed, the recent outrage over the Queen’s rising income is not due to a rise in this percentage, but simply because the Crown Estate’s profits as a whole rose by £24 million this year. Therefore, for the BBC to say that the Queen’s raise is taking more money from the taxpayers is just as ridiculous as if they were to accuse a private citizen of stealing £1,000 from the taxpayers because, after a particularly successful year of business, his after-tax income grew by £1,000.
It is true to note that an increasing number of liberty-minded people have become less hostile to the idea of monarchy in recent years. This is largely a result of the writings of the Austrian economist Hans-Hermann Hoppe, who has argued that rule by monarchic dynasties is less likely to result in extractive and destructive economic policies than rule by short-termist democratic leaders, who have a greater incentive to ‘take the money and run,’ so to speak. However even for more moderate libertarians, it is difficult to regard Britain’s constitutional monarchy as one of the more offensive examples of state power in the world today. Given all the above — along with the fact that the Royal budget only amounts to around 65 pence per Briton each year anyway — many Brits will concede that, while such a thing might not exist in their ideal system, the abolition of the Royal Family needn’t be regarded as a high priority as long as they have no real political power.
The Monarchy's Soft Power
However, not only is in untrue to say that the Queen has no real political power, but it could also be argued that the world would be a better place if she exercised her power more frequently and thoroughly. Despite the widespread belief that British monarchs are purely ceremonial figureheads at this point, the Parliamentary system is such that, after having been passed by the House of Commons and the House of Lords, each bill must also be given the ‘royal assent’ before it can become law. The Queen’s ability to ‘withhold the royal assent’ by simply refusing to sign bills into law gives her a de facto veto over essentially any piece of legislation Parliament wishes to enact (although the public outrage that would result from such an overtly anti-democratic act restrains her from exercising this power regularly, lest it should lead to the abolition of the monarchy). Furthermore, a release of documents in 2013 revealed that ministers and civil servants are obliged to secretly request Royal approval or veto of laws “across most areas of government.” This little-known convention has allowed the Queen to secretly veto numerous pieces of proposed legislation over the years, including a law that would otherwise have given Parliament unilateral power to order air strikes during the Iraq war.
Therefore free market and liberty-inclined people, who tend to prefer a world with fewer laws to a world with more, should not merely tolerate the Queen as a largely harmless element of British political culture, but should actively support the expansion of her veto power as a check against the excesses of democratically elected governments. Furthermore, we should campaign for her to reverse nearly 340 years of state encroachment by retaking sole possession of the Crown Estate from the Treasury, and thereby starving the government of the £330 million of profits those properties usually generate. Not only has she been the victim of the sort of state injustices libertarians and conservatives rightly abhor — not having control of her own property due to the historic expansion of the state, and hence suffering from an effective 85% income tax — but she has also heroically blocked the passage of certain laws which we might otherwise be suffering under today. Therefore I am sure that all principled lovers of liberty will join me in an impassioned “God save the Queen!”
George Pickering is the Almoayyad Fellow in Residence at the Mises Institute this summer, and is a student of economic history at the London School of Economics.