Saturday 11 December 2010

Let Them Eat Cake

When members of two elite and privileged groups in British society meet by chance in the streets of opulent West London you might expect them to nod acquaintance, tacitly acknowledge their shared good fortune, and go about their business. So why the froideur when students in higher education met Prince Charles and Camilla yesterday?

I have taken seriously the Prime Minister’s invitation to ordinary citizens to help identify savings in public expenditure believing that it is no good fighting your own corner if you are not prepared to point out where savings could be made. So far I have pointed to the village fete in Llandeilo, the Olympic Games, the World Cup (the latter now dodged though £15 million lost bidding for it), and the potential for efficiencies in mental health services (though these should be reinvested in those services – see this post). But here is another area where substantial new funding could be realised.

It is an established principle in modern democracies with constitutional monarchies that wealth held by the head of state and family ex officio (ie in their constitutional role rather than privately) should be in the control of - and at the disposal of - the elected government, notwithstanding any ancient historical title. So the Queen obviously doesn’t have personal control over Crown property: nobody would seriously argue with that.

But there is a glaring exception to this sound and surely unassailable principle. The Duchy of Cornwall, a truly enormous collection of land and other profit-making estate, is currently treated as though it was the personal property of the Prince of Wales. But it is in fact “his” only by virtue of his office as heir to the throne (it is not passed down under the normal laws of inheritance) and should therefore be in the control of the state. The Duchy is a very substantial resource which belongs by right to you and me (okay, the government) and yet Prince Charles is free to use it as he pleases. To illustrate this point note that the government pays annually to the Duchy the princely (forgive me) sum of £667,000 for the ground rent of Dartmoor Prison - a lot of money for a patch of barren moorland and odd that the government would pay out rent when the land is rightfully ours already.

As we know Prince Charles uses the huge profits from the Duchy to indulge his personal interests such as building retro rural architecture in “Poundbury” and experimenting in new methods of agriculture producing up-market, expensive food (and joining with other millionaire foodies like Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall and Jamie Oliver to wag their fingers disapprovingly at poor people buying ordinary bread, veg, and chicken in Tesco’s). He also used some of the lolly to buy a holiday cottage in a Welsh-speaking community apparently as a public relations exercise.

There is an echo here from another royal family. Louis XVl and Marie Antoinette similarly were hobby farmers blissfully disengaged from the realities of producing affordable food in quantity, built pastiche pastoral cottages at Versailles, gave thoughtful nutritional advice to the poor (“Let them eat cake”), and bought second homes in remote and impoverished provinces. Perhaps the students who shouted “Off with their heads!” yesterday when they saw the royal Roller in Regent Street were studying 18c. French history?

Don’t get me wrong. I wish no harm to Prince Charles and republicanism is a tedious and unproductive project in the UK but there would surely be substantial financial advantage to the Exchequer in seeking hand-over of the Duchy to its rightful owners. And Prince Charles, with his declared concern for those in greatest need, could do a lot to maintain credibility by not resisting such a reasonable request in these hard times. Better still he could offer it up unbidden.