9 March 2021

The economics of Megxit


CapX readers, I’m sure, have their minds on higher things than the soapier side of the Royal Family, but I love it. I have a collection of commemorative china, my mum’s knitting me a copy of one of Princess Diana’s jumpers, I cried at Meghan and Harry’s wedding, and of course I was glued to their interview with Oprah.

However I know you don’t come to this site for coverage of every tear and tiara – there’s more than enough of that in every newspaper today. Stay with me though, because there is an economics angle to the saga of the Sussexes.

Like a lot of family feuds, Meghan and Harry’s falling out with the Royals comes down to money – significant quantities of it belonging to the taxpayer. It’s a dispute that highlights the tension between the Windsor’s constitutional place in British society, their claims on the public purse, and their identity as a family like any other, made up of flawed individuals with their own interests and aspirations.

Every teenager who’s argued with their parents about their pocket money knows how emotional these fights can get, and Harry’s sense of being set adrift is palpable when he says, “my family literally cut me off financially”. But his family isn’t ordinary and nor are their finances.

Republicans like to argue that the Royals are a waste of taxpayers’ money, but that isn’t quite the case. The majority of funding the Queen receives for official purposes – the Sovereign Grant – comes out of the profits from the land and properties that make up the Crown Estate. It’s ‘public money’ in the sense that the Queen runs the business of the Crown Estate for the nation, and the nation is getting a pretty good deal. In 2020 the grant was set at 25%, meaning the Treasury got £257.6 million. The Prince of Wales receives an income from the Duchy of Cornwall – a vast stretch of agricultural land which he holds in trust and must pass on intact to future Dukes – and he pays income tax at the top rate.

When they decided to step back as working Royals, the Sussexes agreed that they would no longer receive money from the Sovereign Grant, and to pay back the costs of refurbishing their cottage. A statement on their site said they were “looking forward to” financial independence, and perhaps they hoped they would be under less public scrutiny if they were not receiving public funds.

It appears, though, that they did not think financial independence should extend to paying for their own security. Understandably, Royal security is surrounded by a degree of mystery: there is a task force inside the Home Office, the Royal and VIP Executive Committee, which decides who qualifies for state-funded police protection. Reports indicate that, having stepped back from the frontline, Harry and Meghan were removed from this list and their security bill – rumoured to be about £4million a year – was picked up by Prince Charles.

No doubt their fears for their safety and that of their son are legitimate – they are high profile whatever they do and there’s no reason to disbelieve their claim that Meghan’s race was a factor in the threats they faced. But their own account of how relations deteriorated around this issue is slightly confusing.

Meghan says it was first raised when she was pregnant with Archie: “They were saying they didn’t want him to be a prince or a princess… and that he wasn’t going to receive security.” Under a convention established by George V, Archie should automatically become a Prince when his grandfather becomes King. It’s not quite clear if Meghan was upset because he was not a Prince from birth, or because Charles planned to change the convention so that he never would be – the Prince of Wales has been talking about his plans for a ‘slimmed-down monarchy’ for years. Either way, the Sussexes continued as working royals for seven months after Archie was born and refused the courtesy title Earl of Dumbarton ‘in line their wish that he grow up a private citizen’.

Later in the interview, Harry says it was a disagreement about his own security that was the turning point, “I never thought that I would have my security removed, because I was born into this position,” he said. “I inherited the risk so that was a shock to me. That was what completely changed the whole plan.”

We can’t be sure of the details, but this sounds to me like Harry assumed that the Met Police would continue to protect him. It’s a somewhat surprising assumption given that his cousins Beatrice and Eugenie, who inherited similar risks to him and occupy the kind of secondary royal role he seems to have wanted, had their police protection withdrawn in 2011. It’s also the Home Office, not Prince Harry or his family who decide how to deploy police officers.

Nowhere in their interview do the Sussexes appear to consider what the British public might think about their attempts to singlehandedly shake up the constitution with a ‘progressive new role’. It’s possible that our affection for the couple and concern for their wellbeing would extend to forking out for their security while they lived abroad – but we were never asked. And there isn’t much evidence of a keen appetite for paying their bills elsewhere in the Commonwealth: 80,000 Canadians signed a petition demanding they pay for their own protection when they were briefly living there. It’s been reported that they wanted similar security arrangements to Tony Blair – which seems unlikely to have endeared them to sceptics.

One might also question why a couple so concerned about threats to their safety emanating from their fame would make such a high-profile TV appearance, or indeed establish their own media brand. It’s also difficult to see how they square wanting their son to live an ordinary life with raising him with a round-the-clock police presence.

Fundamentally this is a case of Harry and Meghan as individuals rubbing up against the monarchy as an institution. Harry, it seems, thought his security should follow him personally regardless of his role – the Palace appears to have taken a different view. Let’s not forget that Protection Officers put their lives at risk, and they don’t do it because of who the Royals are, but because of what they embody.

That’s the conflict, and the magic, at the heart of our constitution. Part of what’s so wonderful and enduring about the monarchy is the fact that it’s a family. The human cycle of birth, death, grief and joy helps us relate to the State not just as an abstract concept, but as something to which all citizens have an emotional connection. Meghan and Harry’s wedding was a joyous occasion for wet-eyed Royal fans like me because it felt like a bright future for Britain represented by two people in love.

But you can’t choose your family. For Britain, it’s the Windsors – feuds, divorces, paedophile scandals and all – or no monarchy at all. Likewise the Royals can’t separate themselves from the society they rule, however much they may hate aspects of it. Yet that’s what Harry and Meghan tried to do, and that, I suspect, is why they lost their family.

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Alys Denby is Deputy Editor of CapX.