Dn this soggy afternoon when the Queen was still considered ill, the BBC’s Clive Myrie was filling her time. Hours earlier, he noted, Liz Truss had made “a pretty big statement” about how families would pay their heating bills this winter. Everything was now “insignificant”. It was, the excellent presenter later admitted, “a poor choice of words”.
Except it wasn’t. If anything, it was painfully on the nose. The man on TV unwittingly but accurately anticipated how the financial crisis engulfing millions of Britons would be dealt with in the days to come: without consequence. In Tuesday’s Daily Mail, it took page 28 to appear. In today’s Sun, page 20. The Times and the Telegraph have completely yawned it.
Our deputies have been worse. Last Thursday, the new Prime Minister presented a plan to cap energy costs. Valued at £150billion, it is by far the biggest budget intervention by any government since World War Two – a huge sum that these Tory tailors seem determined to spend as badly and unfairly as possible. To take an example: the 4.5 million people using prepaid meters will not receive any additional help from Truss. And another: Churches and community centers housing the food banks that will be a lifeline for millions of people this winter will only get a few months of help.
Rather than scrutinize these measures, MPs spent two long days paying tribute to the monarchy, such as that of former minister Tracey Crouch: “Our six-year-old took my hand in his and said: ‘Don’t don’t worry, mum: the king will take care of us now. He is right. God save the king.” So you have been served by your representatives – and now parliament is closed for 10 days, and next month will be dominated by party conferences.
In their youth, the Prime Minister and Keir Starmer favored the abolition of the monarchy. They have first-hand knowledge not only of Republican sentiment, but also of the wider ambivalence that often greets the royal family. However, they have not even tried to represent this pluralism of opinion, which is one of the characteristic features of any democracy. Instead, we get a grand display of state power, complete with army, navy and the BBC’s Nick Witchell.
During this time of enforced mourning, everyone is being told what to think, even as millions worry about how to eat. The official mood is an ersatz sentimentality. Stop all the clocks, cut the phone, Auden ordered. Today’s equivalent is Norwich City Council closing bike racks and Morrisons refusing to beep at its tills – while Center Parcs was ready to chase away holidaymakers on the day of the funeral. Would Her Majesty really have been embarrassed if the children went on a waterslide or, to come to that, Poundland closed this Monday? I guess she wasn’t a regular.
Away from such performances, the island is full of noise – a sense of suspended chaos. To get a sense of the devastation to come, talk to Paul Morrison. A political adviser to the Methodist Church, he analyzed financial diaries recently completed by visitors to food banks, debt clinics and other church-based projects.
Currently, he finds, just over half of respondents – 56% – can get on without debt. This may mean walking an hour to the job centre, rather than taking a bus; it can be thrown even by the smallest accident, but with luck it can be done.
However, scroll two weeks ahead and add higher energy prices, and everything changes. Even with Truss’ new measures, only 2% of his group can survive financially. The remaining 98% are wiped out. Years of reporting have shown me that the poorest are the best budgeters in the country – better than any striped listener. They can account for every book in and every book out. On October 1, they will no longer have any margin to amortize them.
And so they will sink into the depths under any safety net. Meanwhile, others will float above the law of the land. It hasn’t been widely reported, but King Charles won’t have to pay a penny in inheritance tax on the vast estate passed to him by one of the world’s wealthiest women. Nor is he required by law to pay income tax; he does it voluntarily. This has only been the case since 1993. For decades before, the monarchy paid no taxes.
When this was revealed, public outcry, coupled with anger from ordinary taxpayers being asked to pay for repairs to Windsor Castle, forced the Queen and her eldest son to rethink their affairs. When John Major announced the deal in the Commons, he defended the absence of inheritance tax as serving the “overwhelming wish of the people of this country”. The people of this country were of course never questioned.
When Dennis Skinner was asked what part of his assets – which in today’s figures include the £16billion Crown Estate, the £650million Duchy of Lancaster and the Balmoral and Sandringham Estates – would be taxed, Major saw red. Only the fact that it was Skinner’s birthday, he replied, kept him from responding “in the beastly way I would otherwise have answered the ridiculous question he asked me”. The self-proclaimed Brixton lad has inevitably placed himself at the forefront of this week’s National Grovel.
Yet the former MP for Bolsover asked exactly the right question, namely how accountable the constitutional monarchy is to its democracy – and the real answer is that, despite what the textbooks say, our parliamentary democracy remains accountable to the Royal family. As my colleagues Rob Evans and David Pegg have revealed over the years, more than 1,000 laws have been approved by the Queen or Charles before even being presented to parliament.
Under the Queen’s or King’s consent procedure, ministers alert the monarch to any bills that may affect their private wealth. Since their assets span everything from rural estates to housing, most of which are not even publicly known, this gives them enormous power over the very process of writing the laws that govern us.
Would you rather not sell your houses, Charles? Then your tenants will only have to tolerate this 21st century feudalism. You don’t want those pipelines running through your lands in Scotland, ma’am? Then you will be exempt from the law covering everyone – and no one at Holyrood will know about it, until they read it in the Guardian.
“Do you know there is a duke in Scotland who can travel ninety miles without leaving his estate?” asks a character from Victor Hugo’s 1869 novel The Laughing Man. “Do you know that Her Majesty has £700,000 from the Civil List, besides castles, forests, estates, fiefs, tenancies, tenures, prebendaries, tithes, annuities, confiscations and fines , which fetch over £1million?
“Yes”, comes the answer. “The paradise of the rich is made of the hell of the poor.”
One law for King Charles the Billionaire, another for you. Bailiffs for the poorest, privileged exemption for the richest. A society with all the latest technology and sophistication, but still in the shadow of medieval feudalism. Except that even John of Gaunt could not have counted on the unwavering support of the Daily Mail.
Aditya Chakrabortty is a Guardian columnist
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