With Harry out, the royal family may have to change its ways

If Harry and Meghan show that royals can survive without public money, then what happens to the other royals?

Prince Harry The Duke of Sussex with Meghan Markle
Prince Harry and his wife, Meghan Markle, say they are going to stop receiving government funding from the Sovereign Grant, which primarily pays for their official duties and the expenses of running their household [File:Ian Vogler/Reuters]

Financial independence might not seem like a lofty goal for a couple in their late 30s. But this is the United Kingdom‘s Duke and Duchess of Sussex, better known as Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, that we’re talking about.

The couple’s announcement this week that they’re stepping back from being senior members of the royal family, and planning to rely on themselves financially, is a move away from British royal tradition. In what Harry and Meghan have called a “new working model”, they say they’re going to stop receiving government funding from the Sovereign Grant, which primarily pays for their official duties and the expenses of running their household.

Harry, Queen Elizabeth’s grandson, and his wife Meghan, a former actress, have had an increasingly difficult relationship with the British press ever since their marriage in May 2018. They’ve complained about invasions of privacy, and the perception that media coverage of Meghan has been unfair.

In a statement on their website, Harry and Meghan said that they were carving out a “progressive new role”. The Sovereign Grant, however, only accounts for five percent of their income; the rest comes from Harry’s father, the British heir, Prince Charles. His money comes from the Duchy of Cornwall, a property and investment portfolio that generated 21.6 million pounds ($28.2m) in 2019, and that has been in royal hands for more than 700 years. Harry and his elder brother William received around 5 million pounds ($6.53m) from their father last year. Harry and Meghan made no mention of foregoing income from the Duchy of Cornwall in their statement, but after their announcement, a YouGov poll showed that 63 percent of people surveyed were against them receiving that income.

The couple also has significant wealth of their own. In Harry’s case, the majority of it is inherited, while Meghan earned $50,000 an episode during her role in the United States television series Suits.

Therefore, their decision might not appear to be much of a financial sacrifice. So, is it going to resonate with the British public? Or is this simply going to raise more questions about the vast hereditary privilege that the royal family has?

Paying their own way

It’s still unclear how much money Harry and Meghan stand to lose as a result of their announcement. The wider royal family appears not to have known that this proclamation was about to take place, and officials have not clarified whether the couple will be able to continue living rent-free in their Frogmore Cottage residence, despite Harry and Meghan saying that they were planning to live there. British taxpayers contributed 2.4 million pounds ($3.13m) to the cost of renovating the residence before Harry and Meghan moved in last year. The couple will also continue to cost British taxpayers millions in security costs.

Harry and Meghan opting out helps move Britain towards the normal model of a small royal family of less importance.

Danny Dorling, co-author of Rule Britannia

In a 2015 poll, almost half of the Britons surveyed thought that Harry should stop receiving government funding. The results were even more damning for other royals outside the of the core family, with majorities indicating that they want figures such as Prince Charles’s siblings – Anne, Andrew, and Edward – to stop getting funding.

Professor Danny Dorling, the co-author of Rule Britannia, told Al Jazeera that Harry and Meghan’s decision was a sign of things to come for the royal family.

“Harry and Meghan opting out helps move Britain towards the normal model of a small royal family of less importance,” said Dorling. “And it helps us move closer to questioning the legitimacy of consigning any child to a particular future based purely on to whom they were born.”

For Graham Smith, the CEO of Republic, a group that campaigns to end the British monarchy, there’s no justification for allowing the royal family to continue their privileged lifestyle at the expense of the state.
“We don’t owe them a living, we don’t owe them anything,” Smith said. “There’s no reason why the rest of them should be provided with a multi-million-pound lifestyle on the back of the taxpayer.”

And if Harry and Meghan show that royals can survive without the Sovereign Grant, then that sentiment might extend to the more senior royals, too.

The counterargument is that the royals do pay their own way.

Brand Finance, a brand valuation and strategy company, valued the total worth of the UK monarchy at 67.5 billion pounds ($88.2bn) in 2017. Its calculations also stated that the monarchy generated a “gross uplift” of 1.77 billion pounds ($2.31bn) to the UK economy in the same year, through tourism and trade, among other streams of revenue.

“The monarchy is Britain’s national treasure, both symbolically and economically,” said David Haigh, Brand Finance’s CEO. “Especially in the age of Brexit, Britain can rely on royal diplomacy to facilitate trade relations with the Commonwealth and the rest of the world.”

“The value of the monarchy to the UK economy will continue to grow and captivate royal fans far and wide,” Haigh added. “People will continue to follow the brands that are endorsed by the young royals.”

Entrenched inequality

Critics argue that these economic benefits are still relatively minor. The UK’s revenue from tourism in 2016 was 22.5 billion pounds ($29.38bn), while exports stood at 543 billion pounds ($708.98bn). The amount the royal family brings in is only a fraction of that. And the wider issue is whether the existence of the royal family solidifies the British class system and whether that, in turn, is an economic hindrance to the UK.

According to a UK government commission, inequality in the country is “now entrenched from birth to work”, and “being born privileged still means you usually remain privileged”. Critics point to the royal family as a prime example of that – and the negative impact it can have on the economy.

While Dorling believes that the British royal family has less of an impact on the class system than it did in the past, he points out in one of his books, Inequality and the 1%, that the richest one percent of the population in the UK took 15 percent of national income – a rate much higher than it is in countries such as Switzerland and the Netherlands, and more comparable to the rate in Russia, a country famous for its oligarchs. Dorling has calculated that the poorest British couple “could double their annual income and the median households could be 10 percent better off if the richest one percent took just five times the average income rather than 15 times”.

The anti-monarchist Smith is even more damning.

“The monarchy normalises and helps justify inequality and instances of extreme wealth,” Smith said. “Getting rid of the monarchy isn’t going to solve that, but it would make the solution easier.”

Source: Al Jazeera