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

Want to read more posts like this? Then *sign-up to Look Left* and make sure you have the facts to rebut right-wing spin 

Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.

27 Responses to “Comment: Why we need a referendum on the monarchy”

  1. Selohesra

    As with many things if we started with blank sheet of paper we might not come up with Monarchy as Head of State but we have one that has served the test of time and its now part of British identity. This is something that is not broken and there is no need to fix unless its part of plan to undermine Britishness including the importation of hundreds of thousands of non-Brits over the last 50 years who don’t share our heritage and now want to change the country that has welcomed them. Its like religion – if you don’t like your churches teaching go and join another rather than change for everyone else what they believe in.

  2. Syzergy_Point

    Thanks for the article, I enjoyed reading it. Although on most issues I’m a bit of card-carrying lefty, liberal; I actually think that history shows that an established church and apolitical monarch have been a bulwark against religious oppression since the 16th century. The modern Church of England was a means of keeping at bay the ‘enthusiasm’ of Cromwell’s puritans. Take France’s ‘Laïcité’ or political secularism. This has seen the rights of religious groups curtailed. In other words secularism doesn’t mean neutrality, you can have either a secular or multicultural society, not both. I tend to agree with you about the bishops in the Lords, although I’d rather they were there than hundreds of political toadies; they’re actually more in touch with ordinary people than most of the rest of them. I wouldn’t support a referendum on the monarchy unless there was considerable evidence that people were unhappy with the status-quo. I’m a reluctant left-wing monarchist.

  3. Mick

    No, we don’t need a referendum on the Monarchy.

    To join the reasons below, Her Majesty has actually been part of the modern checks and balances in constitutional politics. She does comparatively little but in her counsel, many a prime minister has considered her invaluable.

    And suppose we get a mad king? Like Jeremy Corbyn, for pure argument’s sake? They don’t actually last long, as Edward VIII proved. And with Elizabeth II working so effectively as head of state that you paradoxically don’t notice her doing it, we would really miss her when she’s gone.

    ….Unless, of course, we see a new President Cameron to continue limiting the madness of a fresh Labour government later!

    Oh god Left, that will be so GOOD! Right, gimme that banner! No more Queen!

  4. Shinsei1967

    Where to start ?

    The Civil List was abolished in October 2010.

    If you can’t get something as simple as that right then one has to question most of the other points you raise.

    The Royal Family is worth £45bn ? Yet the Duchy of Cornwall is worth only £900m and the Queen inherited £50m. Where are the other tens of billions ? Perhaps you are referring to the Crown Estate, Buckingham Palace & Windsor Castle and the Crown Jewels & Royal Art Collection. But these are not the property of the Royal Family. They belong to the UK state.

    The Queen’s personal property extends to Balmoral (bought by Prince Albert), Sandringham, George V’s stamp collection and an investment portfolio most value at a couple of 100 million not tens of billions.

  5. jj

    You want a referendum on the Monarchy? Ok. Look at the latest Yougov article and you will see the latest poll showing the monarchy to have overwhelming support from people from all walks of life, they are so many more issues that require an immediate referendum than this institution that has actually ben benefiting the economy, and employing many for centuries, but you know, LFF and their obsession with the ‘injustice’ of monarchy continues, yawn!

  6. jj

    Once again, biased LFF ignoring the facts.

  7. Syzergy_Point

    I fear the author has a fairly weak grasp of history. But its good to raise issues for debate.

  8. 3aple

    May we have a referendum on immigration?

  9. Terence Ace

    I don’t care what the Queen does – I don’t even mind the salary she gets – I’m sure all those holidays abroad do become a bit boring after a while. What I do object to and what Prem is really drawing our attention to is the preferential treatment with regard to taxation. That has to be wrong!

  10. Robert

    You’re darn tootin’, Terence. Prem may have got a few numbers wrong but the principles he raises are on the money (as it were). If we have to have a monarch, at least let him / her pay his / her way. It would be a start.
    And a democratically elected upper chamber is long overdue.

  11. Prem Sikka

    The financial data is as per the courses embedded in the article. If the assets were the state’s then Cameron et al. would have sold them long ago!! It would be helpful to have an inventory of what belongs to the people or us the private property of the monarchy, and how the monarchy came to acquire it.

  12. Prem Sikka

    Have it on anything you like. The issue has been raised at numerous general elections and is routinely debated in parliament. In contrast. MPs can’t even ask questions about the monarchy or the effectiveness of the head of the state.

  13. Eoireitum

    Do you think for one moment that your ire might be better placed at the financial moguls than this reduced national figurehead who has no personal power. I’m happy that someone else opens factories, sporting games and hospital wings – sounds ghastly to me. I’m all for disestablishment though. And quite content that the institution saves us from presidential alternatives. It’s all metaphorical and if you really think that we feel inferior to royalty then I pity you. I don’t. No one I know does. They’re hardly super intellectual or creative individuals – and seem strapped for cash by comparison with your multinational corporation that can really screw up my life….

  14. daijohn

    If we are to have a monarchy with a so-called head of state who has no say in the running of the country and costs an awful lot of money then, when the present post holder passes on, let’s elect their replacement. Why must they descend from one privileged family?

  15. Christian Høj

    We have the same “issues” in Denmark but they are for the most related to the royal familys excemption of VAT rules and the gifts (e.g. bribe) that they receive from companies etc.
    Almost any elected politician in Denmark are willing to forget their beliefs and views for the chance of meeting the royal famíly or be private friends with them….

  16. ted francis

    Broadly I agree. However, there are two missing elements in your laissez faire argument. 1. The hierarchical nature of British society is underpinned by the existence of the monarchy. It is this stratification that is responsible for much of the inequality and unfairness to which many are subjected. 2. It irks me in the extreme to be referred to as a “subject” of this anachronistic absurdity. I am not a Windsor “subject” nor would I ever observe the silliness of forelock-touching protocols demanded by encounters with the family. The inference of subjugation is demeaning and insulting. The state of the fabric of the houses of Parliament is a useful allegory: pull them down and replace them with a service environment more suited to the twenty-first century.

  17. Eoireitum

    Yes. Subject isn’t great. Citizen, I suppose.
    I’m not sure though that the monarchy even represents true power. The aristocracy impacts my life less than the corporates. The queen has nothing to say about workers rights, interest rates, holiday entitlements or technology. Get real. 2. I’m somehow quite happy to tug a forelock at what she represents whilst still taking the mickey out of her family – weird, I guess – but I’m the proud inheritor of a satirical birthright that somehow marries respect with wicked criticism.
    For all its faults – it’s this juxtaposition of admiration of the reformed institute (post Glorious revolution) with mockery that is far more palatable than a political class wedded to the City…

  18. moanrchist

    go fuck you self

  19. Prem

    Abuse is never a substitute for debate, no matter how much you disagree with someone.

  20. SonOfTheIsles

    We need a referendum so that the silent majority can stick it to the Cult of Multi?

  21. Giles Farthing

    Prem Sikka, i’ve no idea what the University of Essex is, but if you spout this sort of drivel to your students, god help them trying to get a job

  22. Wollebauch

    As quite an aged person I do notice that the monarchy has become a matter of indifference to people. In fact, I see a great many very rude comments about it on forums that are by no means left-wing. We shall see what happens when the present queen dies but I think it could just die a natural death.

  23. Prem Sikka

    Thank you for your kind words. In universities and elsewhere people engage in debate and provide evidence to support their position. This way we can reach new levels of understanding. Your rant had added nothing to any debate.

  24. David

    With a Monarchy it is not a true democracy.

  25. cushy glen

    I was brought up to revere the royal family, but after Diana that all changed for me.
    I see them as the most awful parasites now with no redeeming features.
    Unless the British monarchy is radically reformed, but ideally removed, Britain will always be a a nation with huge inequality & injustice where inherited privilege is what counts to get ahead.
    I cannot see them surviving much past the current matriarch. But that may be wishful thinking.

  26. nick

    Prem Sikka you make a good point and that’s never going to happen. This country is ruled by elitists with the public’s blessing as they keep voting for them and i cant ever see that changing

    For this country to be ever able to be a great country many things would need to change and they to are never going to happen

    the subject of this article has been done to death over the past 60 years to my knowledge and like now nothing is ever going to change

  27. Barry Winter

    While I am a republican I really don’t think having a referendum on the monarchy should be a priority at this time. I think it would be much better for democracy to have a referendum on the renewal of Trident. That would allow a much-needed debate, about the huge costs involved and whether it’s time to scrap it. Perhaps Labour should promise to hold one in its manifesto? I’d be voting against Trident, just in case you wondered.

Leave a Reply