The British Monarchs: Birds in a Gilded Cage . . . or Scam-Artists?
“People say, what does it matter? It’s harmless. The Queen is only a figurehead. It brings in the tourists. But she is more than a figurehead. Every piece of potential legislation that may affect ‘The Firm,’ as they call themselves, has to have royal consent. The monarchy costs the taxpayer £67 million a year ($86 million.) The ‘cottage’ that Elizabeth Windsor gave Harry and Meghan to live in was renovated at the cost to the taxpayer of £2.4 million. Andrew Windsor, friend and associate of Jeffrey Epstein, cost the taxpayer £610,000 for foreign travel in 2010. He would use RAF jets to fly to golf courses. And so on.”—Michael House
By Michael House, FRGS
Editor’s Note: In the late 1980s, a British barrister taking a break from the bar walked in off the street (and into my office) at The Athenian Magazine: Greece’s English Language Monthly in Athens, Greece . . . and I soon set to work mangling his prose. To this day, it (the prose and the mangling) gives me great joy! This column first appeared here in May of 2020.
WEST HAMPSTEAD London England—(Hubris)—1 March 2023—To be a Republican in the US is to be a hissing and a byword. To be a Republican in the UK is a badge of honor, as will be explained below. I did not watch Oprah Winfrey’s interview with Harry Windsor and Meghan Markle. I am not interested in these people, with their silly titles (baby Archie is apparently an Earl) and their tedious feuds. But anything that undermines the monarchy and encourages the UK to grow up as a nation has to be a good thing. The interview also, I understand, pointed up the everyday racism here that people of color know only too well.
Young nations, or old nations that have run out of viable monarchs, have tended to seek a king among the minor royalty of Europe. Greece did it twice in the 19th century, first with Otto, a German princeling. That didn’t work out too well, so, second time round, they went for a Dane who proved to be a better bet.
Likewise, Albania in the 20th century. When it threw off the Ottoman yoke, Albania went king-shopping in Germany, and came up with the unfortunately (but aptly) named William of Wied. He lasted a few months. Trying again, they eschewed nobility, and offered the throne to C.B. Fry, a famous British cricketer and all-round athlete. He declined, and, finally a home-grown candidate turned up, named Zog.
Britain went monarch-hunting in Germany 300 years ago. It happened like this. In 1688, King James the Second was deposed from the British throne (many present-day dukes are descended from women who didn’t say No to James and his brother Charles). He was a Catholic, and he tried to rule by decree and to persecute Protestant bishops (history-buffs will know that this is a gross oversimplification.) His daughter Mary was a Protestant, and she and her husband William of Orange (a Dutchman) were invited by Parliament to job-share the throne. (Stay with me, it gets more interesting.)
William and Mary left no children, so, in 1702, Mary’s younger sister Ann became queen. Despite 17 pregnancies, she left no heir, so, when she died in 1716, Parliament had to hunt for a relative who was not a Catholic to take the job.
The minor princeling who won the jackpot was the founder of the present dynasty.
George, the Elector of Hanover (an obsolete office, Electors had once chosen the next Holy Roman Emperor) was Queen Ann’s second cousin. There were 56 closer relatives of Ann still alive, but they were all Catholics. An Act of Parliament forbade (and still forbids) a Catholic from ascending the throne. (Religious bigotry is not dead in the UK.) So, this obscure German aristocrat was given the opportunity to fill his boots, and his descendants have been doing so ever since.
Some of you will have spotted that the deposition from the throne of James the Second destroyed the whole concept of a hereditary monarchy. You can’t pick and choose. The next one up to bat gets the gig, whether suitable or not. James’s son and grandson tried to regain the throne in 1715 (the Old Pretender) and 1745 (Bonnie Prince Charlie), without success. Romantics will say that the true monarch today is the “King-over-the-water,” Franz, Duke of Bavaria, direct descendent of the Stuart kings.
The British monarchy is like Japanese knotweed, very hard to eliminate. It has survived every crisis. After Queen Victoria’s Albert died, she became a recluse, the “Widow of Windsor,” with decreasing popularity, until Prime Minister Disraeli proclaimed her Empress of India, which cheered her up. These people do love titles.
Her son, Edward the Seventh, was a notorious lecher, one of whose mistresses, Alice Keppel, was the great-grandmother of Charles Windsor’s mistress and later wife, Camilla Parker-Bowles. Edward the Eighth married a twice-divorced American, Wallis Simpson, and was driven from the throne, but the monarchy survived. Charles Windsor “Prince Charles” was effectively forced to marry a very young earl’s daughter, Lady Diana Spencer, whom he did not love. Once she had performed her role as a human incubating machine and produced the heir (William) and the spare, (Harry) she was discarded.
The monarchy is a pernicious institution. It is the apex of a pyramid of snobbery, titles, obscene wealth, and forelock-tugging. Meghan Markle will have been startled to learn that she is supposed to curtsey every time she encounters the Queen. Charles Windsor has a lackey to squeeze his toothpaste onto the brush in the morning. The Queen’s younger sister, Margaret, insisted that her lovers address her as “Your Royal Highness.”
People say, what does it matter? It’s harmless. The Queen is only a figurehead. It brings in the tourists. But she is more than a figurehead. Every piece of potential legislation that may affect “The Firm,” as they call themselves, has to have royal consent. The monarchy costs the taxpayer £67 million a year ($86 million.) The “cottage” that Elizabeth Windsor gave Harry and Meghan to live in was renovated at the cost to the taxpayer of £2.4 million. Andrew Windsor, friend and associate of Jeffrey Epstein, cost the taxpayer £610,000 for foreign travel in 2010. He would use RAF jets to fly to golf courses. And so on.
It is ironic that they call themselves “The Firm.” They are a money-making outfit. The Queen is said to be worth £400 million. (The only good thing about Brexit is that the Queen no longer gets millions in European Union agricultural subsidies.) Add the Crown Jewels and huge land holdings in Lancashire and Cornwall, and the figure climbs into the billions. Successive grovelling governments, Labour and Conservative, have allowed the royals to get away with financial murder. So, well done, to Meghan and Harry for being self-sufficient and ceasing to bleed the taxpayer as the government offers NHS staff a 1 percent pay-raise.
The monarchy is also a cruel institution. Fans of “The Crown” will remember the atrocious treatment meted out to the Queen’s sister Margaret because she didn’t toe the line. I understand Harry Windsor told Oprah that his father and elder brother were trapped in the system. But in an inversion of a classic fairy tale, the beautiful maiden has rescued the prince.
Hilary Mantel, she of the wonderful Thomas Cromwell trilogy, put it very well when she compared the royals to pandas: “expensive to conserve and ill-adapted to any modern environment . . . and however airy the enclosure they inhabit, it’s still a cage.” Charles Windsor told his friend Selina Scott that “there are many times when I feel totally trapped.”
So, to declare the UK a republic would be a humane act as well as a socially and economically desirable one. But will the people and Parliament ever release the zoo animals?
When Elizabeth dies, that should be the end of this ludicrous anachronism. It was a great scam while it lasted, but every crime-family, even one of the most successful in history, must finally be terminated. Let Charles Windsor run for President. I’m sure he would win by a landslide (forelock-tugging is a hard habit to break), but at least we will have had a choice.
Michael, one of your readers, Ms. Grania High, writes in (on Facebook): “Harry and Meghan were required to pay back the full £2.4m for the Frogmore renovation from their own pockets and the concept of Royal Assent is purely ceremonial – the monarch doesn’t have any say what is or is not passes as law. The importance of our constitutional monarchy lies, most importantly, through the potential for a political head of state being avoided. The non-political unity provided by The Queen for 70 years has been of tremendous value – we have not had to suffer a Trump, for example, in that role. We don’t much relish the prospect of the likes of Boris getting the gig. And for the majority of Brits, we think £1 per head annually is good value. Charles had further reduced the number of working royals who receive public funds – and even then, those monies are only to cover royal duties – not their personal living or expenses.”
Michael House’s response: “Call me picky, but I don’t want, as my head of state, a proven adulterer, who exploited a vulnerable young woman he did not love, in order to get an heir and a spare, who talks to plants, and who has expressed a wish to be a tampon.
Harry and Megan only paid the £2.4 million back after they let the Firm and ceased to suck on the public teat. Otherwise, they would not have done so. It is wholly wrong to say that the Crown has no input into legislation – see much research in the Guardian newspaper. Successive governments have given them a veto on anything that affects them that they do not like. My republic would ban from headship of state anyone who has been a member of parliament. We would get someone revered and respected, like David Attenborough or Richard Dawkins. Members of the Firm could stand for election and take their chance. A pound a head equals £65 million. Think what that could do for the health service, schools, or even filling in potholes. If a super-rich person steals a pound from my pocket, I don’t say, it doesn’t matter, it’s only a pound. I resent it bitterly. What is a “working royal?” Someone who is bowed to and curtseyed to, and who asks people what they do and have they come far. What sort of work is that? The whole thing is an anachronistic farce. The hereditary principle is absurd. Would you go to an hereditary brain surgeon for an operation? I suppose we must be grateful that Charles Windsor was born before his brother, the notorious Andrew…. ”
I’ve just read that Charles Windsor has made his brother a duke. You couldn’t make it up…”
To clarify my last sentence, the brother made a duke was Edward, not Andrew, who is already a duke (among other things.) Even in this family, one doesn’t get to be a double-duke.