Thursday, March 31, 2011

God Save The Queen, For Now

Originally published on

LONDON -- Officially, Queen Elizabeth II is in charge of this little island. In the British system of government, the monarch is the highest executive authority, in the way that the president is the highest executive authority of the United States.

But in practice, the modern British monarch has only the power of a bully pulpit. For the most part, Elizabeth II is a face to put on the money, a name to put on official documents, a nice lady to welcome foreign dignitaries.

How the queen's subjects feel about her often depends on their interpretation of the monarch's role: God-appointed power, or charming titular head of state?

The chasm between what the monarchy is today and what the monarchy was in the past lends itself to confusion even among regular Britons. Despite the royal family's omnipresence in the tabloids, everyday citizens tend not to know much about the monarchy's place and role in modern society. Ask a person about the royal family, and you'll more than likely receive an emotional response or grandiose fabrication about their eating swans or being in charge of elite assassination squads.

"When I was younger, I used to be a hard-core left winger. I adopted every 'anti' position that I could find," confesses university lecturer Dyfrig Jones. "Over time I've worked my way back to the political center, but if there is one thing that takes me back to my youth, it's the royal family."

Jones bases his contempt of the royal family on ideological grounds. Their presence, he said, shows respect to an outdated and unfair way of looking at the world.

"How deeply is servitude ingrained into our national psyche that we would give up a second of our time to think about the lives of these leeches that draw huge personal wealth from the taxes that we pay?" he asks.

The issue of tax money is one that comes up frequently in arguments about the monarchy. The royal household is allocated £7.9 million ($12.7 million) a year by the government to help cover the salaries and pensions of its more than 300 members of staff. Add in costs of police protection and so on, and the annual cost of a queen runs a little more. In the 2009-10 financial year, the monarchy cost the British public £38.2 million (roughly $61.4 million).

But some would argue that is value for money. In the same financial year, it is estimated that Elizabeth II brought in more than £100 million ($160 million) to the British public purse. That figure takes into account charity work, official functions and the land and property cared for as part of the Crown Estate. The amount of international tourism money brought in by the royal family is harder to measure, but it is generally accepted to be a factor in many people's decision to visit the country.

The Crown Estate is a collection of land and property, ancient buildings and art, owned and maintained by the royal family. These items are generally open to the public to view and visit. Business consultant Siân Dafydd said this portfolio is a reason she's content to see the royal family as a part of modern Britain.

"I wouldn't trust the government right now to have kept these works of art and architecture and heritage in the current climate," she says, referring to a recent furor over government plans to sell off sections of national forest.

"[The government] would have sold them off to the odd millionaire who'd have shut the doors or made hotels. As guardians of this property and land, I've no objections to the royals."

Ensuring that the public stays objection-free is thought to be one of the primary concerns for the royal family. With no real power over the country, the monarchy's future rests in the hands of the public mood. To that end, Prince William and Catherine Middleton have been a tremendous boost.

But in this country that is so famously resistant to change, the monarchy also has a place simply because it has always had a place. And many Britons carry a fondness toward the monarchy because it is something that helps them stand out in the world.

"It's one of the things that make Britain a little bit different. What is wrong with being old-fashioned?" said Anne, a waitress in Cardiff. "I enjoy having the queen on my money, reminding me that Britain used to be considered, and still can be, great."


Anonymous said...

The idea that taxpayers should pay *anything* towards one of the richest families in the world disgusts me.

The Crown Estate comprises of land taken from the people and the suggestion that this self-appointed bunch have a better idea how to manage land than the people of those areas is pretty insulting.

The allegedly unifying concept of Britain as a nation is dead, although it may well have legs as a state. It's as dead as the rotten, black-hearted Empire upon which it was founded and from which this family of pathetic individuals made it's fortune.

Viva la republica! Cymru rydd!

Chris Cope said...

Really? Rotten, black-hearted Empire? Have you been reading adventure novels?