The royals need a rescue plan if we are likely to see the Prince of Wales crowned King with anything like a mandate from the British public. Gen Z is turning away from the idea of Kings and Queens in a big way, with a significant gap in public support for the concept of monarchy between today’s twenty somethings and their parents and grand-parents. The National Centre for Social Research (NatCen), the grand doyenne of polling organisations, found that just 12 per cent of 18- to 34-year-olds view the monarchy as ‘very important’, compared with 42 per cent of those aged 55 and older. NatCen have been asking the British public about their attitudes towards the monarchy for over 40 years and track an unmistakable shift in public opinion.
One of the most common criticisms of the royal family is the perception that it costs a princely sum to maintain. While any expenditure on royalty irritates republican activists, the public understands that it needs to be paid for somehow.
The Sovereign Grant, the money paid to the monarch out of the profits of the vast Crown Estate, has actually fallen in recent years. Take out the cost of refurbishing Buckingham Palace, which is undergoing a major internal rebuild, and the cost of royalty has fallen in real terms by 60 per cent since the early 1990s. In the last year alone there has been a real terms drop in royal income from the Sovereign Grant of almost a quarter (24 per cent), when additional payments for repairs to Buckingham Palace are excluded.
George Osborne revolutionised the royal funding model in 2012 with a new settlement where the monarch would keep 15 per cent of the profits from the vast Crown Estate property empire. In 2022 this meant £51.8 million was handed over to the (then) Queen to pay for her work and the upkeep of royal palaces, with an additional £34.5 million to refurbish Buckingham Palace. Most of the money goes on property maintenance, preventing some of our most notable buildings from falling into disrepair. Remarkably the late Queen spent just over £1 million on entertaining – a figure many would expect to be much higher given her role in welcoming foreign dignitaries.
When David Cameron published his memoirs, he described the deal George Osborne struck with the royal household as one of the best decisions made during his time at Number 10. He claimed it probably saved the monarchy from itself and avoided accusations that pampered royals were scrounging off the state. It certainly avoided MPs voting on pay rises for princes every few years, which is only marginally worse than voting for their own pay to increase.
The price tag attached to our royal family is a vexed and much disputed issue. In the run up to last month’s coronation one national newspaper devoted several days to trying to undermine the royal family, with claims of vast wealth concealed from the taxpayer and hidden away in royal bank accounts.
The target of their angst is the ancient royal duchies of Lancaster and Cornwall, each providing an income for the monarch, in the case of the Duchy of Lancaster, and the Prince of Wales in the case of the Duchy of Cornwall – the later made famous for its biscuits, which is probably all most people know about it.
The ancient estates of the Duchy of Lancaster and Cornwall provide funds from their activities for the monarch and Prince of Wales. These estates each generate profits of more than £20 million a year, with a combined turnover close to £52 million. These are big money spinners.
These estates are carefully run and turn a handsome profit, a quick glace of the annual reports produced by the trustees of both institutions reveals that much of the income is derived from rentals and managing large amounts of farming land. Neither the Prince of Wales nor the King can access the capital from these estates, so claims that they are billionaires in any real sense is factually untrue. They do receive money from these estates as the principal beneficiaries (and in turn they pay tax on that income, a long-standing agreement that isn’t likely to change anytime soon).
The historic providence of these estates is often called into question, with critics claiming they represent ill–gotten gains. Some have even called for them to be nationalised and the capital returned to the treasury. A more imaginative solution would be to turn them into charities with a remit to do obvious good, there could even be public involvement getting the public to nominate local good causes. Small, local charities could be the beneficiaries of this reform with the public voting through an app or online.
For royalists worried this might mean future penury for The King and his heirs it is worth remembering the family has considerable private wealth as well as the potential to earn an income from some of our most historic buildings, it happens to all aristocrats in fancy houses the royals should be no different.
If a new generation of British subjects are to be convinced that the royal family really is worth keeping, some radical ideas will need to be considered. Just keeping your head down and cutting ribbons is unlikely to work. Instead, the new King and his son should look carefully at both duchies and repoint them to charitable works. Turn them both into Britain’s biggest charities, instead of pay days for monarchs and princes, hand the cash to worthy causes with a royal seal of approval. There’s no need to nationalise these public assets, but it is questionable if royals should continue to cream of the profits when a big gesture is needed to win over a new generation. Putting the money generated from the duchies into good causes would be a way of demonstrating a new relevance for a sceptical Gen Z electorate, you could call it a sovereign wealth fund.
Frank Young works for a Westminster think tank and is writing in a personal capacity.