Voices: What would a radically slimmed-down monarchy actually look like?

·4-min read

For car spotters (I’m not going to bother trying to make it sound respectable for an old bloke to be indulging in such a hobby), it was a special moment when, soon after his accession, King Charles III rode out in a Rolls-Royce Phantom IV limousine made for his mother, who was then Princess Elizabeth, in 1950.

Only 18 were produced between 1950 and 1956, of which 16 survive. Among other things, this graceful, imposing, and very long vehicle had the distinction of only being available to heads of state and royalty, which played a small role in re-establishing Rolls-Royce’s reputation and snob appeal after the dislocations of the Second World War.

Elsewhere, the King and his Queen Consort have been taxied around in various Phantom VI models, which are relatively common, really. His mother tended to use the state Bentley presented by what remained of the British motor industry for her golden jubilee in 2002. This has various modern VW and Audi components under its retro bodywork, because the German group owns Bentley now, and it is obviously too much of a pastiche for the new King. He prefers the more traditional look, as you’d expect.

Point being that we’re unlikely to see HM and his missus travelling around London by bicycle, Boris Johnson-style, any time soon – as is famously the case with some of the continental monarchies.

The King, according to most accounts of his lifestyle, is not as personally frugal as his mother, and has been known to be extravagant in his hospitality. As we enter the era of food banks and the biggest squeeze on living standards since the war, that’s the sort of thing that could get him bad press. Along with his reputation for discourteousness and temper tantrums, of which we’ve already seen glimpses, this could prove a significant obstacle to public acceptance.

That said, and in sharp contrast, the King does seem intent on slimming down the privileges and perks of his extended family. We have already witnessed the effective redundancy of Prince Andrew, Prince Harry, and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex.

As for the patronages, visits, investitures and tours, there has already been established a core group who will undertake most of these activities – and will be alone in receiving taxpayers’ cash via the sovereign grant, which covers their official travel, property maintenance, and the operating costs of the King’s household.

(Security costs are not covered by the sovereign grant and are paid separately by the public. Of course, the King also receives considerable income from his “private” wealth and the crown estates, on which he pays income tax – agreed with his mother, after a recessionary period, in 1992.)

So, we will see rather more of rather fewer “active” or “working” royals – with the rest allowed to keep their titles and perhaps some grace-and-favour privileges and duties. Gradually, the Kents, Gloucesters, Yorks and others – with their Shakespearean-sounding titles – will fade from the scene: living mementos of the historic fecundity of the houses of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha and Windsor.

Instead, the “Super Seven” will be the focus of attention, and will have to do their bit to justify their existence to a public faced with doubling fuel bills, stagnant wages and soaring inflation – the King; Queen Consort Camilla; the new Prince and Princess of Wales (aka Wills ’n’ Kate); Anne, as Princess Royal; and the Wessexes, Prince Edward and his wife Sophie.

Maybe, in due course, their own children will roll their sleeves up and go royal walkabout; but for now it’s a streamlined team. On top of that, more of Buckingham Palace and Balmoral will be opened up – not least to earn some income.

To keep up to speed with all the latest opinions and comment sign up to our free weekly Voices Dispatches newsletter by clicking here

So it will be streamlined, more than “slimmed down”, really – in the sense that the King and Queen won’t be exercising much austerity, and the rest of the Super Seven probably won’t face many privations either. The wider penumbra will, though, be expected to fend for themselves and/or keep their heads down (the Duke of York in particular).

There’ll be reforms, but they’ll be evolutionary; and much will remain opaque – particularly the fuzzy line between what the family “owns” and thus has a claim to raise income from, and what is plainly the property of the state.

It would be much more satisfactory if the Firm were actually run as a firm, with all its assets in public ownership, the members of the family effectively salaried and contracted, and all made accountable to public and parliament. If there is to be no inheritance tax payable on the £15bn estate, then let it be public property.

We should nationalise the duchies of Lancaster and Cornwall, and all the rest of it, accrued via their stays as heads of state for centuries. We don’t want or need a bicycling monarchy, and certainly not with that magnificent fleet of classic vehicles at their disposal; but we are supposed to be a democracy. Aren’t we?