We all know how it is. You notice your car exhaust is sounding louder than it should, with that distinct rattle that suggests it is rusted through somewhere. You think, “Funny, I only had it changed at the last servicing”. Then you realize after a moment’s reflection that it can’t have been the last servicing, or the one before, because those were the refits for the valves, brakes and electrics. The dismal certainty descends on you that your exhaust is actually at least six years old and that, even then, only the silencer was replaced, so the rest must be ...
I sympathize with the Queen. “What, that heating boiler at Buck House has turned sixty? It seems like only yesterday that we were having the entire system redone to state-of-the-art specifications. The long gallery roof needs redoing ... again? How many times is that now? It’s been done three times since Vicky. The last time was just a couple of years after the Festival of Britain and that was only ... oh, yes, so it was. Doesn’t time bloody fly?”
Ma’am is down to her last million. It’s official. Before we had the Sovereign Grant system, these things were managed by the Civil List without much oversight – noblesse oblige, don’t you know – but now every royal building is evaluated for its tourist potential, every royal bauble and rag is scrutinized, every brick is subject to assessment, every conduit gets checked for leaks and losses. And a good thing, too, because the Royals, however much we may love them, can’t go on forever living beyond all our means. The reserve fund used to hold over fifty million. Even after the fire at Windsor there was still thirty million in the kitty. Only one set of six zeroes remains. If it were Paris Hilton we could all have a giggle about it, but we’re talking about the monarch of an erstwhile empire, star of the world’s longest running pageant (well over a thousand years and still going strong), the person who appoints our high court judges and charges newly elected majority leaders with forming a government. We’re talking about the head of the Commonwealth, the lady who sacked an Australian PM and who is Commander in Chief of one of the world’s most modern and active land, sea and air armies. Queen Elizabeth is not your average celebrity.
Of course, the Queen is also a massive source of revenue, both through her estates (rents, agriculture) but also by the diffuse and hard to measure standard of tourism: all those people who come to London for that special whatever-it-is that people associate with royalty and tradition that makes them buy coffee mugs, solar handbag-driven, waving statuettes of the Queen and fake Grenadier busbies. Taking this vast visitor flow into consideration has led a parliamentary committee to the conclusion that the royals are not doing enough for their fan-base, at least, not enough that’s lucrative.
Buckingham Palace, they tell us, is grossly under-visited if compared with the Tower of London, that other edifice so redolent of royal prerogative and its fragility. Since “ER” is frequently absent for long periods at Windsor, Balmoral or Sandringham, MPs insist that the building could do more to pay its own way. Committing to a significant increase in guided tours would make a big difference towards balancing the maintenance budget. I for one wouldn’t even tour Buck House if Keira Knightly were my personal guide and I finished up having tea and scones with the housemaids in the back pantry. The place is a hideous, boring and ponderous architectural monstrosity without a single redeeming feature. Windsor Castle is feudal, fabulous and set in one of the nation’s great parks. Hampton Court is sublime. Sandringham is utterly charming. Balmoral, though it looks like a Scottish baronial golf club for the chinless, is not without a certain rustic something. It makes you want to gird up your loins with a nice bit of tartan. But Buckingham Palace is definitely not loveable. It is dull, cloddish and lacking in any of the lyric qualities of grace, proportion, refinement, fantasy or domestic warmth that make a building desirable. The single trace of romance it holds is that famous balcony, which has seen the initially hopeful start of so many marriages. If the Queen would take a tip from an old hand at renovating and restoring impossible properties, she should turf all those diplomats and factotums out of St James’ Palace and move back in there. It was good enough for the Tudors and she’d be next door to her grandsons.
We need not worry that the Windsors are going bankrupt. The much-reduced fund is only part of the picture. Many of the Royal Estates, and especially those belonging to the Prince of Wales, are well-managed and doing very nicely thanks. The royals hold significant investment portfolios in blue-chip stocks as well as expansive lands and farms overseas. There are 360 domestic properties in the British Isles that belong to the Windsors, either at the behest of the nation or in their own title. Not all of them are in a state of disrepair. Some are eminently desirable. Some are bringing in good income. In addition, the Royal Collections are vast, and even though a considerable part of them belong, technically, to the nation, it is the monarch who decides whether or not to sell a Chippendale writing desk, a Faberge egg, a Gainsborough, a Constable or a set of Rembrandt sketches. What the royal family lack is good management. Without clear financial guidelines, the most willing custodianship in the world will not be able to meet the historical and everyday demands of such a broad variety of buildings.
There is surprisingly little gloating going on. No one is singing along with the republican movement, all three of them, as most of us seem to be far happier with a monarch we know and trust rather than a politically dependent and even more expensive presidency. Beyond this, we all secretly realize that even if the situation were genuinely critical and the Queen really was down to raffling seats at palace garden parties or getting up before dawn to ensure a good parking slot for the Phantom V at some local car-boot sale (“The little Delft shepherdess? Oh, one can part with that for a tenner, can’t one Libby?), Elizabeth Regina is just too big to fail, far more worth saving than any of the banks that got bailed out in the last decade and certainly a lot more useful. Think of all the research funds and institutions under royal charter or patronage, all the university colleges, all the hospitals and NGOs. There are a host of equations that just don’t balance without the input of the Royals.
And it’s not all a history of waste or ineptness. The problems faced by royal buildings are not as mundane as you or I might have to deal with. Yes, a heating system is a heating system. But if you live in a Grade One listed property, you cannot simply insulate your attic or reroof your house without going through time-consuming and thus very costly processes of conformity to regional standards and historical preservation codes. All the materials you use will be more expensive due to their limited craftsman origins. The nails you use will cost more, the tiles you lay will cost more, plastering and mortaring will cost more. Any woodwork will have to be genuine traditional carpentry in keeping with the building and using traditional tools, etc. Even the simplest alterations and renovations are all markedly more complex and fraught with regulatory hurdles and hidden costs when you are dealing with places of historical value. All of the Queen’s residences fall into a listed category, even Buckingham Palace, although this writer would be happy to see it knocked down and replaced by a row of big, mirrored glass cubes, which would not only reflect the elegance of the Mall, but also serve as a metaphor for the self-obsessed people the Brits have become in this age of Twitter and selfies on Instragram.
And when all the limousines, all the old masters and neglected country residences have been sold and it really comes down to the very last million? Well, even that can go a long way if you’re careful. It will buy an awful lot of grow bags full of organic compost for Highgrove and Sandringham to become self-sufficient. It will pay for a lot of lawn mowing at Balmoral as it turns into a pro golf course. Or else it will keep the royal corgis in Chappi for five hundred years. We should all be so lucky.
© Edwin Drood
, January 2014
See also Hang onto your Rembrandts
, Edwin Drood's Column 28 September 2010,
for further Droodian thoughts on the British royals.
"The Royal Review, the Guards at Buckingham Palace - three cheers for the Queen!"Illustrated London News
, November 25, 1882.