Comment: Why we need a referendum on the monarchy

Britain is a secular and multicultural society, but such aspirations sit uneasily with the practices of the head of the state


Queen Elizabeth II has become the longest reigning monarch and head of state in British history. Coverage in the sycophantic tabloid press suggests that the monarchy is popular, though that has never been tested through a referendum. Popularity, or otherwise, should not stand in the way of debate about the consequences of the constitutional arrangements.

An ordinary Briton, no matter how educated, capable or popular, cannot be the head of state. That position is reserved for a member of a privileged family. This can’t be reconciled with claims of being an equal opportunities society.

Britain is a secular and multicultural society, but such aspirations sit uneasily with the practices of the head of the state. The head of the state has to be the head of the Church of England. Under the 1701 Act of Settlement no one from outside this religious denomination can be the head of state. There is no formal separation between the state and religion, often considered to be a key feature of a modern state.

The Queen appoints the bishops and the archbishops of the Church of England, albeit with the prime minister’s and Church commissioners’ recommendations. Archbishops of Canterbury and York and 24 other bishops sit in the House of Lords and act as unelected legislators. A secular society contains people of diverse religious and spiritual beliefs, as well as atheists and agnostics, but they there are no reserved seats for them in the House of Lords. Thus, religious discrimination is built into the system perpetuated by the monarchy.

In a democratic country, elected representatives of the people should be able to scrutinise the effectiveness of the head of the state. However, members of the House of Commons are not permitted to table questions about the conduct of the monarch even though they approve the Civil List and allocate millions of pounds for the running of The Queen’s Household.

In legitimising his austerity politics, David Cameron famously claimed that ‘we’re all in this together’. Such claims would have greater legitimacy if they applied to the monarchy as well. Most Britons have to pay income tax, inheritance tax, capital gains tax, corporation tax and other taxes. How does all this apply to the monarch and the heir apparent?

The Queen is not compelled to pay all taxes. She voluntarily pays capital gains tax, and since 1993 has paid personal income tax though the amounts are not known. The estate of lesser mortals has to pay inheritance tax at the rate of 40 per cent on assets above £325,000, but the Queen does not pay inheritance tax. She inherited £50 million from her late mother’s will and her privileged position is thought to have saved her £20 million.

The wealth of the royal family is shrouded in secrecy. Some have estimated the royal family to be worth £44.5 billion plus £11.5 billion of commercial property. However, the fortune can be passed to the Queen’s heirs without the deduction of inheritance tax.

These economic privileges are available not only to the Queen, but also to her heir apparent Prince Charles. The Prince is well known for his attempts to influence ministers and then taking legal action to prevent public knowledge of his interventions. As Duke of Cornwall, the Prince controls the Duchy of Cornwall. The Duchy makes laws which affect people, but the Prince has asserted that the Duchy is somehow exempt from the freedom of information laws.

The Duchy trades in property, house building, holiday rentals, organic food, jam, marmalades and biscuits. It owns 53,400 hectares of land and property in 23 counties of England and Wales. These include Dartmoor Prison, the Oval cricket ground, a Waitrose warehouse in Milton Keynes, a biomethane injection plant, pubs, shops, hotels and a building occupied by King’s College in London.

The Duchy’s net assets of £871 million generated £19.7 million of profit for Price Charles. The entire profit is the property of Prince Charles. The official information is that it is used for the performance of his official duties, even though he receives public grants to cover his travel costs.

The Duchy competes with other businesses and makes full use of the infrastructure funded by taxpayers, but it does not pay corporation tax on its profits or capital gains tax on its asset sales. Upon becoming King, Prince Charles is permitted to pass the entire estate of the Duchy to his heir, Prince William, without any inheritance tax.

The above is a brief glimpse of some of the social and economic consequences of the monarchy. In the twenty-first century they do not sit easily with concerns about equal opportunities, institutionalised discrimination, lack of parliamentary accountability and failure to pay taxes. How long before the UK has a referendum on this?

Prem Sikka is Professor of accounting at the University of Essex

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