The Crown and the Cost: The Royal Family, Pop Culture, and ‘Value for Money’

Ruby Katz | 23 January 2017

The British Monarchy. With its tumultuous history of fame, fortune, and infamy, it’s safe to say this royal entity has withstood a lot. Obviously, things have changed over the years and power has shifted from the family to the government, a process beginning with the reading of the Magna Carta and continuing with the Glorious Revolution of 1688, the Bill of Rights Act of 1689, and the Act of Settlement in 1701. A constitutional monarchy, the royals act as head of state, with their role considered “politically neutral”, and by convention “largely ceremonial” [1]. The role of the royal is to serve as an embodiment of the nation, more a symbol for nationalism than a force of rule. The United Kingdom has therefore emerged a hybrid of democracy and family, giving a thorough nod to its royals as an outmoded yet still sustained institution.

With this reconstitution of power comes questions of who the royals really are and what their purpose is.  Although the royal family can be considered as merely nominal leaders, such a characterisation understates  the social power that the family still holds, resulting from their rich history, their position in the public consciousness and, perhaps surprisingly, the value they hold for the British economy. This article will briefly examine  the cost of the monarchy to the British taxpayer and look at how recent popular representations of the royal family both shape and are shaped by public opinion.

Critics of the monarchy, notably members of Republic, often cite a disparity between cost and gains, believing the royal family to be a drain on the British taxpayer’s pounds while providing a minimal return. It’s true that the royal family have been increasing their allowance of late, raising it from 56p per taxpayer in 2014 to the 62p currently extracted as part of the royals’ yearly spending allowance [2]. In times of austerity for the rest of the country, how are the royals spending more than ever? In 2014, spending increase was largely due to cited upkeep of the royal residences, with the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge refurbishing their home for the arrival of Prince George to the tune of £4.5m. Indeed the bulk of their expenses comes from the upkeep of property. However, given that their property is managed by the Crown Estate, a business which invests and manages the UK’s historical assets, all profits are transferred to the Treasury for the benefit of the people. Hence the commonly-used phrase (supplied by royal aids in defence of royal spending): it’s value for money. So, while Republicans argue that citizens are liable to pay more under a monarchy, the contributions made by the Crown Estate can prove to be a major asset in return.

With some economic facts in hand, where can we place the royal family? Can their image be based solely on the revenue they provide to the British economy?

The royal family has always been closely associated with British nationalism and pride, but the digital age has allowed their image to expand, reaching beyond tourism and into new levels of representation in the realms of fictional depictions and multi-faceted narratives. While critics of the royals are granted a global voice through various media and are able to make public the royal spending records and personal shortcomings, this same media also draws attention to national respect for the royal family and their cultural influence.

With the recent resurgence of interest in the personal lives and experiences of the royal family, there has been an outpouring of royal-centric films and shows, resulting in a number of varying portrayals. Ranging from the critically acclaimed The King’s Speech (2010) to the controversial Diana (2013), such representations reach viewers all around the world and perhaps even shape viewers’ perception of the Family themselves. Most recently, the new Netflix series The Crown (2016) aims to depict Queen Elizabeth II’s ascension to the throne and subsequent key events, both public and private, during her reign. The series depicts the lavish lifestyle of the royals, displaying their expensive clothing, private plane rides, and ornate living rooms.

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(Claire Foy and Matt Smith as Elizabeth and Philip, screenshot from The Crown)

The Crown accomplishes this portrayal while at the same time counterbalancing the royal lifestyle,  lavish spendings, and expensive homes with storylines that normalize its characters and emphasize the personal struggles that come with the monarchy. Queen Elizabeth especially is depicted in a way that garners a good deal of empathy from viewers. It’s an interesting depiction and perhaps becomes even more interesting when one considers the spectacle of an average family sitting on their couches at home viewing The Crown with a sense of sympathy for its characters. The product provided is certainly doing its best to shed a positive light on the royal family, and to make the money they spend seem less important when compared to the cost of their sacrifice and national duty.

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(Public waves as the royal family trains pass, screenshot from The Crown)

These shows effectively reflect the public desire to not only discover the intricacies of the royals’ personal lives (historically a preoccupation of the British tabloid press), but also to feel as though they have, in some sense, a stake in the royal family. This, too, becomes part of the conversation on the royal cost. It is true that the monarchy functions on the use of a taxpayer-funded allowance, that their estates are often found in the grey areas between public and private ownership, and that there is continued criticism of the monarchy’s role in British society itself. But as suggested above, to dismiss the benefits they confer to the economy, their centrality to the symbolism of the country, and their rich history would be to oversimplify this very intricate and contentious debate.

About Ruby

Ruby is an MSc Film Studies student, born in Chicago but loyal to the sports teams of Cleveland OH. Her research interests include the study of semiotics and syntax in film language. She spends most of her time wandering the streets of Edinburgh in search of donuts and good sights.

References

[1] “Constitutional Monarchy.” The British Monarchist League.

[2] Rayner, Gordon. Queen’s income rises again as cost of royal family is 62p per person in the UK. The Telegraph, 2016.

 

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