With the possible exception of the first Elizabeth, this second Elizabeth is our most successful monarch – so much so that it is easy to forget that the sovereign hasn’t always been popular. Queen Victoria wasn’t, at times. Edward VIII isn’t remembered today with affection. The reasons for this are unrelated to his marriage to Wallace Simpson, but his decision to abdicate, in order to wed the woman he loved, shook the monarchy.
The Duke of Sussex is sixth in line to the throne, not the heir to it, let alone the sovereign, and his circumstances are very different. But there are obsure echoes of the abdication crisis in his and his wife’s desire to reduce their royal duties. It comes during an arduous period for the Queen herself: 2019 was “a bumpy year”. Prince Philip has retired. Prince Andrew has suspended his own public work in the wake of the Epstein affair.
What is essentially a holding statement was issued on the Queen’s behalf yesterday about the future of the Sussexes. They will now “transition” to “a more independent life”, and there are “complex matters for my family to resolve”. If these words reveal little, that is understandable. For decisions about the future of the Duke and Duchess have wider implications.
The Queen’s words are the first draft of an answer to a broader question: “what should we do about senior members of the Royal Family who want out?” This takes us back to where we started. The monarchy and the Royal Family are not one and the same, but the second can knock the first off-balance. Think of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales – and what followed.
So what is at stake is more than the possibility of a senior Royal and his wife going rogue. The decisions about the Sussexes’ future must be got right because they will set a wider precedent. They also take place in the context of the Prince of Wales’ reported desire to “slim down” the Royal Family: in other words, to cut the amount of public money that it consumes.
The details of the settlement in this case will indeed be complex, but the principle that underpins it should surely be straightforward – namely, that one cannot fudge membership of the working Royal Family. Either members of the family are performing public duties or they aren’t. If they are, then they should be paid. If they aren’t, then they shouldn’t.
It will be claimed that it all isn’t quite so simple, at least in this case. Up to a point, that is true. For example, what about security? It would be wrong to deprive the Duke and Duchess of it altogether. This will mean that the taxpayer has to stump up. But even in this case, support should be limited. Neither the Sussexes, nor some future member of the family who wishes to opt out, should be allowed to run up unlimited bills.
So they will need a security protocol of some kind. It is being said that the Duke and Duchess may not have grasped the tax implications of substituting whatever they earn in future for funds from the Duchy of Cornwall. But if they are to become citizens ordinary in every other way than being titled, and earn in much the same way as everyone else, then they must pay tax like everyone else.
The Queen could help to fund them, as to some extent she does now, from her private income. But this raises some of the “complex matters” to which her statement referred. She is funded by the sovereign grant, that private income, and the Duchy of Lancaster. Grants from the latter would not be taxpayers’ money. But the Duchy is accountable to the taxpayer for its spending: the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster must answer for it in Parliament.
In any case, Duchy money would not be compatible with financial independence. However, yesterday’s statement, as we have seen, refers only to the Sussexes wanting “a more independent life”. And to say that they do not wish to be reliant on public funds does not rule out the possibility of their using some, even after the “period of transition” comes to an end (whenever that may be).
Some will argue that this would be for the best, because public money would mean continued control – and that its provision will minimise the likelihood of the Duke and Duchess cutting loose and embarrassing the Queen. The spectre of an Oprah interview, and more where that might come from, haunts the Royal Household. Might accusations of racism or sexism be flung at the Queen or the Duke of Edinburgh or the Prince of Wales?
Prospects of this kind seem to have haunted yesterday’s talks. We hope that nothing of the kind would happen were the Sussexes to lose access to public funds. But if it did, we believe that the least bad response that any senior royal could make would be to take the ensuing publicity on the chin. Most people have enough common sense to be able to tell claim from fact.
They would be less forgiving were the Duke and Duchess to claim, on the one hand, that they were leaving their duties behind but that, on the other, they still wanted to draw on on public funds. The principle we outline – financial independence – seeks to avoid this. It would have wider application. Any future working member of the Royal Family who wished to leave what the Duke of Edinburgh calls “the Firm” would have a model to draw on.
We wrote earlier that there are obscure echoes of the Abdication crisis in the fate of the Sussexes, but they are just that: obscure. The plight of the Duke and Duchess may be no less agonising, but the implications are less extensive. This royal crisis is manageable. After all, not all members of the Royal Family undertake public work and draw public money.
For example, consider Princess Anne’s children, Zara Tindall and Peter Phillips, who don’t even possess courtesy titles. Prince Andrew’s children, Princess Beatrice and Princess Eugenie, have been taken off the sovereign grant list. At any rate, the future of the Sussexes condenses down to a single, simple point. When it comes to being a working member of the Royal Family, one can’t be half in and half out.