The British monarchy, we’re often told, is a purely symbolic institution. The UK might retain the pageantry of kings and queens, but its royal family exercises no power.
There’s a sense in which that’s true. King Charles can’t start wars or have his enemies beheaded. Anyone who’s ever heard the man try to string together his thoughts can be grateful for that much. But there’s a big gap between not having as much power as the bloodthirsty tyrants who held the throne in earlier centuries and having no power.
My sister, her husband, and my nephews are British citizens. I’ve made it over there a couple of times in the last few of years, and I can’t help but notice that they do in fact seem exercise a bit less power than their king. For example, if one of their neighbors in Abergavenny died tomorrow without leaving a will or having identifiable heirs, my sister wouldn’t be empowered to help herself to that neighbor’s assets.
As the Guardian has revealed, though, Charles has been doing exactly that through the Duchy of Lancaster in North West England. Using a legal mechanism that dates from well before people started saying British monarchs have “no power,” the king has been “profiting from the deaths of thousands of people” in the region whose assets are “secretly being used to upgrade a commercial property empire” held by his hereditary estate.
It’s never been a secret that the Duchy claims the assets of those who die in this situation. But they’ve always claimed that after “costs have been deducted,” the rest is donated to charity. The Guardian’s reporting has found that only a “small percentage” of the money makes its way to charity — unless, I suppose, you consider further enriching a billionaire whose position in the British state derives from his genetic connection to medieval tyrants to be a form of “charity.” The funds are instead “secretly being used to finance the renovation of properties that are owned by the king and rented out for profit,” and the king receives tens of millions in Duchy revenue every year.
Even before this most recent revelation, the idea that the King was powerless never quite added up. As I wrote back in 2021:
[I]magine that someone told you tomorrow, “From now on, you’ll have a weekly private ‘audience’ with the prime minister or president or chancellor of your nation, and if you so much as hint that you were displeased with that official, it would be considered a major news story. Oh, and any time you wanted, you could provoke a constitutional crisis by withholding your assent from a law, although you’d risk losing your status by doing this.” Would you consider this to be a decrease or increase in the amount of political power you wielded as a private citizen?
Nor is the idea that King’s status is “symbolic” particularly comforting even to the extent that it’s true. Pretend, for the sake of argument, that the office as it exists in 2023 really was purely symbolic — as opposed to what it actually is, which is mostly symbolic. The obvious follow-up question is, “symbolic of what?”
Defenders of the monarchy talk a lot about “continuity.” And it’s certainly true that one thing the institution and its many quaint traditions symbolize is the continuity between the current British state and the globe-spanning empire that pillaged much of the world in earlier centuries. In that sense, we can think of the monarchy as something like the world’s tallest Confederate statue.
More than anything, though, it’s the ultimate symbol of hereditary privilege. When Charles addresses parliament while wearing what looks like a costume from a bad historical drama, or when he sits down for his weekly audience with Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, the symbolic message is that some people are more important than others — in his case, much more important — not because of their exemplary moral character or their contributions to society or even their talents, but simply because they were born into a special status.
As a socialist, I find even much milder forms of hereditary privilege abhorrent. I hate that we live in a world where some people are born into wealth and others poverty. But, even if you can justify the level of inherited inequality built into capitalist property relations, surely several centuries after Enlightenment philosophers started proclaiming that everyone is born with the same moral rights, we can agree that making someone the head of state because of their genetics is a bridge too far.
Julian Talbot certainly thought it was. A sixty-five-year-old ex-miner who lived in North West England, he was described by friends as a “trenchant republican.” But by the time his estranged son even found out that Julian was dead, the Duchy of Lancaster had started the process of taking over his assets.
His friend Ceri Hutton said Julian would “turn in his grave” if he knew his assets were going to be used to further enrich the king. In his case, the process was stopped — though not before the real estate–hungry Duchy had cleared his bungalow of his photographs and letters.
But how is this still an issue in the third decade of the twenty-first century?
I would say it’s time to put this hideous anachronism to rest, but that’s not quite right.
The time is long overdue.