For years, guessing how rich the Queen is has been a popular – if exasperating – parlour game.
On the one hand, she is famously frugal, keeping warm with a £30 electric heater and sticking to for decades the same brand of £7.99 nail varnish. On the other, fabulously wealthy, with a portfolio that spans works of art and jewels to wind farms and thoroughbred race horses.
But all the calculation added up to one thing: guesswork. The fact is the secrets of the Queen’s wealth are stringently opaque.
Once it was routine among compilers of those lists of the very wealthy to place the Queen as the richest woman in Britain, if not the world.
Once it was routine among compilers of those lists of the very wealthy to place the Queen as the richest woman in Britain, if not the world
Not any more: In the most recent Sunday Times Rich List of the 1,000 richest people in the country, she was sandwiched between hotelier Sir Rocco Forte and delivery firm tycoon Steve Parkin at a lowly 372, with a fortune estimated at £350million – down, incidentally, by £20million on the year before.
However, the details of her wealth – such as her investments and shareholdings – remain unknown.
So what should we make of claims from the Guardian, a newspaper with historically anti-monarchy views, that during the 1970s the Queen successfully lobbied the Government to change a draft law to conceal her ’embarrassing’ private wealth from the public?
It claimed she had used an arcane parliamentary procedure called ‘Queen’s Consent’ to discreetly influence the drawing-up of laws.
First of all, the revelation is not new. It surfaced at the time and, more than 30 years ago, the royal biographer Andrew Morton revealed how shares thought to be owned by the Queen had been transferred into a shell company called Bank of England Nominees, which drew a veil of secrecy over her investments and stock market activity.
One justification for such a move to hide her shares portfolio was that public knowledge about where the Queen invested her money might influence the market. While undoubtedly convenient in shielding the Queen’s finances, it also seems plausible.
The Queen, the Duke of Edinburgh and the Royal Family on the balcony at Buckingham Palace after her coronation at Westminster Abbey
Consider too the firms who might benefit from royal investments. Were they to be identified, it could strategically and commercially disadvantage them because of the increase in public scrutiny that would become inevitable.
This could be particularly relevant in a new company, say one involved in cutting-edge technology, as such disclosures could benefit rivals. As one City figure says: ‘It might drive up a company’s share price, but it might also drive it down.’
Of course, the question can fairly be asked why the Queen’s subjects need to know anyway about her private means, which are quite separate from the government funds intended to pay for her expenses as Head of State.
But there has been public fascination in the monarchy’s wealth since the days of the profligate King George III who was so much in debt he handed income from Crown land to the government in exchange for a Civil List, an annual payment which Parliament had to approve and which existed for 250 years.
The distinction of the Queen’s official wealth and her private fortune has not always been clear.
For example, although the estates of Balmoral and Sandringham – acquired in Victoria’s reign – are said to be the Queen’s private property, there have been claims over the years from historians that Victoria and Prince Albert acquired them at least partly with money diverted from the Civil List.
In which case, would the state have a claim on them?
What is intriguing about the revelations, unearthed in the National Archives, is how the Queen’s then-personal lawyer Matthew Farrer visited civil servants to discuss the implications of proposed legislation before it was signed into law.
But there is one important factor here. For when the Companies Bill finally made it on to the statute book, it did not change the status quo of the Queen’s private investments: It simply maintained it.
All the same, it does lift the veil on the silky workings of the Palace and the curious relationship between Parliament and monarchy.
But does this reveal some hidden conspiracy between Government and sovereign to protect her private wealth? On the evidence supplied by the Guardian, it is hardly compelling.
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