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3 July 2017

Ruth Dudley Edwards: Whatever the cost of keeping royals on the road, taxpayers should be quite happy to pay it

'There is far more for the UK to worry about than the 82m Sovereign Grant'

The Queen and Prince Charles have played a key role in the peace process
The Queen and Prince Charles have played a key role in the peace process

With all the troubles going on in the world, all the political upheavals and — in the UK — Brexit, a hung parliament, the controversy over the deal between the Conservatives  and the DUP and the tribal standoff in Northern Ireland over restoring the Executive, I struggle to understand why people are getting worked up over the monarchy.

Polls show the vast majority of the British people think the institution works.

And considering the contribution the Queen and Prince Charles in particular have made in holding out the hand of friendship to people who tried to kill them, in Ireland we have serious reason to be grateful for their positive, peace-making role.

So being of the “if-it-ain’t-broke-don’t-fix-it” school of thought, I think, as a society, we should leave it alone and get on with fixing what actually is broke.

But the absolutists are always with us, so last week I was on Talkback defending the increase of 8% in the Sovereign Grant — the money the Exchequer makes available to the Queen from the profits of the Crown Estates that she owns.

What the £82m she will receive in 2018-19 will be spent on are the salaries of her employees, her official travel and hospitality and the upkeep of palaces, which are her places of work.

Buckingham Palace, outside and latterly inside which tourists reverently gawp, is like the Houses of Parliament in a right old state — broke in fact — and needs shedloads of money spent on it to stop it falling down and shaming the United Kingdom in the eyes of the world.

Critics are upset that the monarchy is hereditary.

Though in many ways it’s a cruel burden to put on anyone, it’s actually very helpful that the senior royals are bred and brought up to their jobs as a duty from which there is no escape.

It’s not what most of them would have chosen.

The Queen would have been much happier had she been able to devote her life to horses, while her husband was free to rise — as he might well have done on merit — to the top of the Royal Navy.

Prince Charles was forced into a miserable marriage with Lady Diana Spencer, an emotionally damaged teenager, because conventions of the time required the heir to the throne to marry that increasingly rare species — a virgin.

William loved the stable, rather ordinary family life of his calm, supportive girlfriend Catherine Middleton, and until recently, when his nonagenarian grandparents began reducing their workload and he was forced to be a full-time royal, the young couple were happy living in the country, with him as an air rescue pilot and her raising their children.

And Prince Harry recently suggested that no one in the royal family wants to be King or Queen, but that nonetheless: “We will carry out our duties at the right time.”

The royals have had it instilled into them that the institution has two main functions.

The public one is to represent with dignity, ritual and ceremony a continuity that at times of flux is of inestimable value to the stability and confidence of the country.

The private one, as Walter Bagehot — whom all royals study — pointed out more than 150 years ago in The English Constitution, is for the monarch to be consulted by her/his ministers, to encourage, and to warn.

Retired Prime Ministers have made it clear how much they appreciated the weekly meeting with the Queen, where they could speak freely without fear of leaks and draw on her common sense, long experience and impartiality.

Unlike so many countries where absolute monarchs provoked violent revolutions, British monarchs have allowed their powers to be peacefully whittled away.

Bagehot was in favour of having a family on the throne for the public to scrutinise, for “it brings down the pride of sovereignty to the level of petty life”.

That is harder for the royals to bear as technological and communications advances and an insatiable public appetite for soap opera have left them exposed to serious intrusion.

But it’s their duty and they do it, and I think taxpayers should be happy to contribute whatever it takes to keep the show on the road.

Ruth Dudley Edwards’ The Seven: The Lives And Legacies Of The Founding Fathers Of The Irish Republic, was published by Oneworld Publications on March 22.

The paperback of Ruth Dudley Edwards’ The Seven: The Lives And Legacies Of The Founding Fathers Of The Irish Republic will be published on April 23.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

Jeremy Corbyn, who lost the general election, on stage at Glastonbury
© Ruth Dudley Edwards