The Royals Are at the Heart of British Capitalism

From offshore accounts to rentierism, the royals are quintessential British capitalists.

by Laura Clancy

9 September 2022

‘Emphasis on the dramas of the ‘Family’ only serves to occlude the Firm’s essential role in Britain’s contemporary class structure.’ Photo: Reuters/Toby Melville

There are several versions of the British monarchy. The version we often see is the monarchy of pageantry and tradition, philanthropic visits, weddings, babies and funerals. Another version is associated with the state: the opening of parliament, the monarch’s weekly meeting with the prime minister. A crucially overlooked way to understand the monarchy, though, is as a corporation: the Firm, out to maximise profit and maintain its global corporate empire.

The monarchy is often dismissed as a traditional, out-of-touch, backwards-looking institution with no place in contemporary Britain. This, however, is to fundamentally misunderstand the way that monarchical power works. Rather than an aristocratic relic of a pre-bourgeois era, the British monarchy has worked its traditional privileges into the heart of British capitalism. Emphasis on the dramas of the ‘Family’ only serves to occlude the Firm’s essential role in Britain’s contemporary class structure.

The corporate Firm.

One of the most telling examples of the royals’ entanglement with modern financial capitalism lies within the Paradise Papers. Alongside other global corporations like Apple and Nike, the Duchy of Lancaster (the British sovereign’s private estate) was found to have investments in two offshore financial centres: the Cayman Islands and Bermuda.

Despite legally being a common law corporation, the crown is exempt from much taxation. The sovereign grant, which funds some of the monarchy’s activity, is exempt from income tax. The crown is also liberated from inheritance tax on ‘sovereign to sovereign bequests’, meaning assets can pass down the bloodline without alteration or loss of wealth.

Thus, while corporations such as Amazon avoid paying tax through arrangements like stock-based compensation, the Firm relies on the uncodified British constitution and political custom to play the same game. The Firm, therefore, stitches together historical traditions with financial capitalist logic.

Historically, there are consistencies in how the monarchy exploited its legal status to its advantage, mapping onto developments in capital accumulation. A long time before offshore tax havens, the aristocracy and the monarchy were avoiding tax by investing landed estates in trusts. Trustees manage estates on the benefactors behalf, not only concealing the owner’s identity but putting the assets into an “ownerless limbo” where they cannot be subject to checks from other authorities.

This mobilisation of historic custom to ensure the monarchy and its assets remain forces of wealth and value also extends to land ownership. The crown estate – a land and property portfolio – announced a net revenue profit of £269.3 million in 2021, and it is run as an ‘independent commercial business’ with 450 staff. While much of its holdings were conquered by historical monarchs or taken during the Reformation, the Firm has diversified its portfolios over the years. The estate now encompasses huge swathes of prime land, including London’s Regent Street, Eltham, Richmond, Egham and Hampton; fourteen retail parks; much of the UK’s wind, wave and tidal power sites; and 336,000 acres of agricultural land and forestry.

The sovereign grant, the annual public payment which partly funds the monarchy’s activities, is calculated from a percentage of the crown estate’s net income. Yet, although the Financial Times describes the sovereign grant as ‘performance-related pay’, the grant does not decrease when crown estate profits decline. It can, though, increase when profits go up, reflecting the pervasive neoliberal practice of socialising losses and privatising profits.

Similarly, sponsorship deals directly connect the Firm to global, corporate brands. The Prince’s Trust regional awards’ sponsors include HSBC, Royal Bank of Scotland, Natwest, Dell, Delta Air Lines, Tesco, G4S and BAE Systems. The Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme has been supported by Lloyds Banking Group, Stagecoach Group plc, Legal and General, Aston Martin Lagonda Ltd, and British Gas. Elsewhere, in 2020, a Chinese television advert featured Peter Philips flogging Jersey Milk surrounded by the royal iconography of country estate and carriage. His sister, Zara Phillips, has multiple commercial promotional deals for luxury watch brand Rolex, horse auction house Magic Millions, outdoor clothing brand Musto and iCandy prams – she even has a personalised jewellery collection for Calleija.

In this context, the idea that the Firm isn’t run as a corporate bureaucracy is absurd. In the Oprah Winfrey interview, Meghan Markle (who herself used the phrase ‘the Firm’) spoke of the royal HR department, and alluded to the shadowy figures who control the organisation through hierarchical structures (e.g. the private secretaries). In the family Firm, the monarch is roughly equivalent to a corporate vice president, the Lord Chamberlain (who runs ceremonies and events) is the chairman, the monarch’s private secretary is chief executive, and heads of department are sector managers. Among senior staff there seems to be a revolving door between the Firm and trade and professional organisations, global banksPR departments, political campaigns, and the civil service.

The family Firm.

It is extremely ironic, then, that some got so angsty about Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s corporate and sponsorship deals after they resigned from the Firm. We might ask what they are doing that truly deviates from the Firm’s traditions. Two possible explanations arise: a) the criticisms are racist; b) given Harry and Meghan are no longer protected under the Firm’s ideological umbrella, their deals appear more obviously corporate.

How is the Firm sheltered from the accusations that were launched at the departing couple? In part through its protected status in the British imagination as a royal family. There’s an important distinction between the terms ‘monarchy’ and ‘royal family’, despite their often interchangeable use. ‘Monarchy’ describes the institution, whereas ‘the royal family’ describes the individuals within it, and the stories about them that circulate in social and corporate media. And it’s media representations of those royal individuals that we most often see, from babies being born to a royal cutting another ribbon. Even ex-director of royal communications Sally Osman said: “there is a distinction between what we do to articulate the monarchy[…] and then the role that each of the individuals play within that story”.

In a 1984 essay, journalist and writer Rosalind Coward referred to the monarchy as “The Royals: the longest-running soap opera in Britain”. The Royals, she argues, uses conventions of the family melodrama, with weddings, babies, break-ups and internal conflict. In this, she says: “we never have to deal with the royal family as a political institution; we only have to think about human behaviour, human emotions, and choices restricted to the family.”

Coward’s insight remains true today. Prince William and Kate Middleton display their idealised family unit on Instagram, creating an image of heteronormative ‘middle-class’ domestic bliss, obscuring the army of nannies and plethora of palaces. The brotherly rift between Princes William and Harry is splashed all over the newspapers, side-lining the story of racism which forced Harry and Meghan out. The Queen was depicted as mother, grandmother, and elderly great-grandmother clutching her handbag, taking on the affective maternal role for nation and Commonwealth.

This appropriation of the family aesthetic lies in historical attempts to make new forms of capital respectable. At each shift of capitalism, particular figures emerged as vulgar faces of capitalist wealth, contaminating the supposedly natural economic order headed by the aristocratic landowner. The eighteenth-century dominance of the East India Company led to moral panics about so-called nabobs: mercantile elites returning from India who would then marry into aristocratic families, buy positions in parliament, and disrupt established economic norms. Likewise, new Victorian business owners were seen to compromise a social class order grounded in the morality of the family and inherited wealth. To counter this, early business organisation was modelled on the family.

Queen Victoria recreated this familial look. While previously the court was the centre of political power, as monarchies around Europe and the world began to crumble the monarchy needed new forms of legitimation, and looked towards this moralising narrative of the family. Victoria’s reign was characterised by portraits of interior domestic scenes, and Victoria and Albert were depicted as bourgeois parents. By modelling the monarch on middle-class wives – the guarantors of their husband’s values and status – monarchy could act as a public symbol of the nation, and avoid political accountability.

The contemporary monarchy’s performance of Victorian-inspired, middle-class family values is a strategic project. It distances the Firm from wealthy oligarchs and capitalist dynasties such as the Bransons and the Trumps – with whom the Firm arguably has more in common than a typical middle-of-the-road family. Indeed, keeping the royal family clean of associations with capitalist vulgarity is vital for its legitimacy in the public imagination, and to preserve a higher moral order untethered from the divine right it could once rely on.

The aristocratic Firm?

George Orwell once declared Britain “the most class-ridden society under the sun”. Is this any wonder, given the subservience to an ancient aristocratic family built into our entire political structure? Aristocratic power might be less visible today, but that doesn’t mean it’s not there, even if its forms and functions of wealth accumulation have diversified. Think of the billionaire Duke of Westminster and his global property portfolio worth £10 billion, or the Marquesses of Bath who have turned the Longleat Estate – complete with a safari park, the modern-day aristocratic menagerie – into an Instagram lifestyle brand. This is landownership still marked by feudal form – it’s held by descendants of a traditional feudal class – but expanded into capitalist landlordism and real estate ventures which ensure the aristocracy can maintain its towering position.

The monarchy may be a feudal institution, but it can’t just be dismissed as an irrelevant anachronism in the face of corporate forms of wealth and power. The monarchy is a capitalist corporation, oriented toward, and historically entrenched in, processes of capital accumulation, profit extraction, and exploitation. Its historical and constitutional privileges are reworked for a capitalist marketplace, even though, in the bourgeois imagination, using political power to grant specific privileges violates the sacred ‘level playing field’ of the market.

Many exclaimed their shock that the monarchy was involved in the Paradise Papers. MP Margaret Hodge said: “Monarchy is one of the most trusted, loved and respected institutions in Britain and it symbolises the integrity of Britain in the world, and to see it sullied by these sort of activities is outrageous.” Such bewilderment at the monarchy’s unscrupulous wealth-accumulating practices shows how it is positioned in the public imagination at the opposite pole to corporate forms of wealth and power.

As we move into a new era with King Charles III, is it finally time to disrupt such romanticised notions? No longer do we have as Queen a benevolent elderly woman clutching her handbag. Charles has projected a different version of being royal, including explicit political lobbying and more hands-on property development in his work on the Duchy of Cornwall. His style may more readily lend itself to politicisation from below. The fight against global corporate monopolies and for the expansion of democracy must include the Firm as a target.

Laura Clancy is a lecturer in media at Lancaster University and author of Running the Family Firm: How the Monarchy Manages its Image and Our Money.

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