Will the pandemic finally end Britain’s love affair with the royal family?

Recent revelations of the Queen's lobbying have shown the price the country pays to sustain the royals. As the UK faces the economic fallout of Brexit, and continued devastation from Covid-19, it is time for Britons to ask what the monarchy is actually for

February 11, 2021
The full extent of the Queen's wealth still remains unknown. Photo: Robert Harding/Alamy Stock Photo
The full extent of the Queen's wealth still remains unknown. Photo: Robert Harding/Alamy Stock Photo

The Queen lobbied for a change in proposed new UK laws to secure exemption from disclosing her wealth, the Guardian revealed last weekend. Having unearthed a series of government memos in the National Archives, the paper explained how Elizabeth Windsor’s private lawyer, Matthew Farrer, lobbied ministers to change proposed legislation on bringing transparency to company shareholdings during the 1970s. The government then inserted a clause into the law “granting itself the power to exempt companies used by ‘heads of state’ from the new transparency measures.” The full extent of the Queen’s wealth is still unknown.  

What is particularly notable about this revelation is the extent to which the royal family may influence the formation of British laws in their own favour. Using the parliamentary procedure of the “Queen’s consent,” ministers are required to alert the Crown if any legislation could affect her private interests, which the Queen may then lobby against—even before such legislation can be approved by parliament. More than a thousand such laws have been vetted by the Queen or Prince Charles before public approval.

Britain has long held a deeply entrenched affection for Queen Elizabeth as a benevolent and humble monarch. Taking the throne at only 25, she has long been associated with the “Blitz spirit” and a “keep calm and carry on” stoicism. Having recently celebrated her 69th year as sovereign, she symbolises quiet endurance, benevolence, and a comforting sense of stability throughout many tumultuous decades. Despite the requisite trappings of wealth that go with her role as Queen, she is supposed to be, at heart, devoted to the British people. 

It may be for this reason that the public have seemed willing, to date, to turn a blind eye to a number of reasons to be critical of the monarchy. Although popularity for the royal family waned after the treatment of Princess Diana, an episode brought back into focus by the latest series of The Crown—and while there are still many unanswered questions about the alleged antics of Prince Andrew and Jeffrey Epstein, the American financier and sex offender—popularity for the Queen, in particular, remains high. A YouGov poll in December 2020 found that 53 per cent of Britons believed she had done a “very good job” during her time on the throne. A further 26 per cent found she did “a fairly good job” while only 5 per cent thought she had done a “very bad job” or a “fairly bad job.” 

The lobbying uncovered by the Guardian, however, reveals a real divergence, between the idea of a stoical and benevolent queen, and the reality of a shadowy institution determined to protect its own privacy and wealth. The fanfare, the weddings, the openings and the sparkling, ornate grandeur has helped create a national fantasy—one that many have enjoyed. But how much are the British public willing to pay for this dream, this elaborate fairy tale?  

When the receipts are laid bare, such as they are now, can we continue to affirm this cultural artefact that costs millions every year? We are now in the middle of a pandemic that has caused incredible economic devastation—to say nothing of the many years of austerity. Poverty rates have now hit record highs. Can modern Britain really accept this lack of transparency on top of the already vast wealth and immunity of the royal family?  

The allure of the royal family for many Britons lies in its role in sustaining national myths. The Queen is a powerful symbol of the British dream—her authority and popularity are rooted in the belief that the UK somehow retains the strength and influence of its imperial past.

But the “British Dream” began to crumble long before the pandemic. Brexit left our economic future shaky and uncertain, and our relations with the EU will likely remain a source of difficulty for many years to come. The UK’s international reputation has been tarnished by its chaotic response to these talks, as well as the government’s shambolic reaction to the pandemic. In the middle of these multiple crises, British people, and Britain, appear as small and vulnerable as everyone else on this planet. Revelations of overt Crown self-interest may finally puncture the appeal of living in a fantasy—even if it is only through the grandeur of somebody else.