'Feudalism never completely disappeared from the UK. It simply put on new garbs.'
Prem Sikka is an Emeritus Professor of Accounting at the University of Essex and the University of Sheffield, a Labour member of the House of Lords, and Contributing Editor at Left Foot Forward.
Democracy, elected parliament, rule of law, civil and human rights have held out the possibility of a decisive break from feudalism, but all is not going well in the UK. Social mobility is in retreat, inequalities are rising and ultra-rich corporations have replaced the medieval landlords playing dice with the lives of millions.
Feudalism never completely disappeared from the UK. It simply put on new garbs. The UK still has a monarch, who is an unelected head of the state and enjoys considerable constitutional, legal and financial powers. In the era of equal opportunities, no ordinary Briton, no matter how intelligent, educated, popular or capable, can become head of the state. That position is reserved for an individual from a family. Dynastical politics rule supreme.
In the absence of a written constitution, the monarch exercises considerable powers. During the reign of Queen Elizabeth II more than 1,000 laws, covering issues ranging from Brexit trade deals to inheritance and land policy, were vetted by her or Prince of Wales (now King Charles III) through a secretive procedure before they were approved by the UK’s elected parliament. No law passed by parliament can be enacted unless the King signs it.
King Charles III oversees some $46bn (£37bn) in assets. The monarchy is funded by a Sovereign Grant from the public purse, which is expected to increase from £86m to £125m in 2025. Public purse bears the cost of security, pomp and pageantry; and some estimate that annual cost of the monarchy is around £345m.
Since 1992, the late Queen and now King Charles III have volunteered to pay income tax and capital gains tax on personal income. The actual tax paid, if any, is not known. The King is exempt from inheritance tax. Indeed, secrecy surrounding royal finances makes public accountability impossible.
His Majesty King Charles III is also the current Duke of Lancaster and controls the Duchy of Lancaster, described as an obscure hangover from feudal times”. Medieval practices continue. The assets of the individuals living in the Lancashire county palatine, and who die without a will and with no known next of kin, automatically go to the Duchy of Lancaster. This is different from elsewhere in the UK where such assets go to the Crown or the public purse. In the last years, some £61m of assets went to the monarch. The Duchy claims that most of this money is donated to charity but a media investigation found that only 15% went to charity.
Financial privileges aren’t just confined to the monarch. They also extend to other members of the royal family. For example, the Duchy of Cornwall is under the control of the Duke of Cornwall, who happens to be the Prince of Wales and heir to the throne (Prince William). With £1.1bn of assets and profits of £22.6m, the Duchy is a sprawling business empire. It has assets in 21 counties in England and Wales. It owns 52,430 hectares of land, 2,830 hectares of woodland and commercial property. It owns Dartmoor prison, the Oval cricket ground, holiday cottages, garden centres and more, and competes with farming, holiday and other businesses. However, it is exempt from payment of inheritance, corporation and capital gains tax. The Duke of Cornwall has also exercised veto on a number of draft bills.
Feudalism isn’t confined to the monarchy. The House of Lords, the upper chamber of the UK parliament, is entirely unelected and still has hereditary peers whose ancestors secured their position by doing favours for the monarchs centuries ago. The Lords pass legislation but lack public accountability. Personally, I would vote for the abolition and replacement of the House of Lords by an elected body.
A new feudal order has been cemented. The ultra rich and corporations dominate the political institutions. They fund political parties and too many legislators are available for hire to ensure that their paymasters’ interests are prioritised. Laws and regulatory frameworks seen to be threatening are neutered. The evidence is not hard to find. For example, governments fail to investigate bank criminality and prosecute financial fraudsters. Faced with stonewalling from regulators, the Thames Valley Police and Crime Commissioner said: “I am convinced the cover-up goes right up to Cabinet level. And to the top of the City”.
Grateful political parties enact special tax laws for the benefit of the wealthy. For example, wages are taxed at the rates of 20%-45%, but capital gains accruing from the sale of second homes, artworks, antiques, shares and derivatives are taxed at the rate of 10%-28%. Through the Data Protection and Digital Information Bill the government is taking powers to snoop 24/7 on the bank accounts of anyone receiving social security benefits and the state pension. The government claims that this is to prevent fraud, but the same surveillance does not apply to the bank accounts of tax dodgers, money launderer, or recipients of government contracts.
In this new feudalism, companies can knowingly break laws and face no investigation or prosecution. A good recent example is the P&O Ferries which unlawfully sacked 800 workers via a pre-recorded video message with no prior consultation with workers or trade unions. Workers were replaced with cheaper agency staff. The company freely admitted to flouting employment law but faced no prosecution. Instead, the government enacted the Conduct of Employment Agencies and Employment Businesses (Amendment) Regulations 2022 to enable employers to replace striking workers with agency staff. This law was rejected by the High Court.
Companies hold governments to ransom. They demand subsidies, lax laws and low wages for workers, and threaten to cause economic chaos by exiting the UK if their demands are not met. So, governments deregulate and roll-back consumer protections. The Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Act 2023 has removed the right to strike from millions of workers. Striking workers can be sacked without any right of appeal to any court.
Politicians seeking to enhance worker, consumer and citizen rights face hurdles. They cannot govern without blessings from corporate barons, especially those controlling media. Newspapers controlled by media mogul Rupert Murdoch have engaged in phone hacking, police bribery, and exercising improper influence in the pursuit of stories. Yet, his media empire exercises considerable public influence. Politicians flock to seek his approval which is conditional upon pursuit of neoliberal policies. No politician dares to break-up his empire or democratise the press.
Anyone seeking to shackle power of corporations and the ultra rich faces a barrage of smears, misinformation and coups, as former Labour Jeremy Corbyn discovered. Senior members of his own party secretly acted against him to prevent Labour from winning the 2017/2019 general elections. A senior serving general in the British Army threatened a coup, if Corbyn became Prime Minister.
Social mobility might hold the key to curbing the drift towards new feudalism, but prospects are not that good. Despite a 24% increase in gross domestic product since 2010, the average real wage is lower than in 2005. The withdrawal of free university tuition has saddled low and middle income families with some £206bn of debt. Inevitably, moving up the social ladder in Britain has become harder than at any point in more than half a century for children born into poor households.
We live in troubled times as hard-won rights have been eroded. In the absence of constitutional reforms and curbs on the power of corporations and the ultra rich, the UK is drifting into new forms of feudalism. This will neither bring prosperity nor happiness to the masses and will incubate resentment. A written constitution, fully elected parliament, changes to the electoral system, total ban on corporate funding of political parties, equitable distribution of income and wealth, and a revolution in human, civil and worker rights can bring emancipatory change and divert Britain from the road to a new feudalism.