The Royals are well known for their involvement with charitable causes, including Children’s HIV Foundations, Cancer Research, the Red Cross and even Surfers Against Sewage. Around 3,000 organisations around the world are said have a member of the British royal family as a patron or president. It is beyond contention that many of these causes have received a royal boost from ‘The Firm’s’ involvement (Queen Elizabeth’s terminology, not mine).
It is easy to see this support as a simple act of charity: a monarch using their position of privilege to support social good. However, it should be properly understood as a reciprocal exchange between the recipient organisation and the Monarchy. Arguably, the Monarchy are the greater beneficiaries – it is the public relations value of these engagements that maintain its privileged existence.
After all, the Royal Family’s leverage is the power of celebrity, and there are countless celebrities able to bring attention and support for your cause with just as much starpower – free of the association of unearned status, inequality and hereditary privilege.
Over the 1980s and 1990s the British royal family lurched from one crisis to another; Prince Charles’ affair with Camilla Parker Bowles and the tragic death of Diana Spencer to name but two. Facing a dramatic decline in popularity and desperately trying to salvage what was left of their reputation, they turned to high-profile philanthropy to improve their public standing. But that philanthropy is made possible by taxpayer-funding.
The British Royal Family receives an estimated £345 million per year in contributions from British taxpayers. Rather than being accountable to the taxpayer, these royal stipends are effectively siphoned from the public treasury to be spent at the sole discretion of the Royal family. If such a practice was instituted in a developing country, it would send alarm bells ringing at the IMF.
Worse still, royal public relations tours abroad are largely funded by taxpayers in those countries. In May 2018, Prince Charles spent 10 days touring Australia at a cost of over AUD$1 million. It cost at least that again to host Harry and Meghan in October 2018. In both instances, those taxpayer contributions come at a cost to local schools, health care and social services.
Despite being one of Britain’s largest recipients of charity at a time when governments are increasing austerity measures, the British Royal Family has no legal obligation to support causes in the public interest, and are taxed at a level of their choosing. However, as the beneficiaries of unearned privilege they have a moral obligation to do so. Further, in an age of increasing scrutiny, it’s now a political necessity – they occupy a position of privilege they have not earned, and so must continue to convince the public they are worthy of it.
The great irony is that some of this royal philanthropy today contributes to causes that fight for economic empowerment, for greater democratic participation and equality; whereas the ongoing existence of monarchies depends upon state-sanctioned inequality and inherited privilege.
Organisations that champion these values should question whether a royal, of any nationality, is an appropriate ambassador for their cause. Is that innate mentality – an attitude that some are born to rule and some born to serve – the kind of message that not-for-profits and social justice causes wish to send? Who does it really serve?
Philanthropists and organisations considering royal patronage should reflect on this before aligning their name with the institution.
Sandy Biar is the Campaign Director for the Australian Republic Movement, the campaign to replace the British Monarchy with an Australian, chosen by Australians as Australia’s head of state. Momentum is building, with 52 per cent of Australians now supporting calls to make the change to the nation’s constitution.