Queen Elizabeth II, coach
Queen Elizabeth II, accompanied by the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall, returning to Buckingham Palace, London, in the Diamond Jubilee State Coach, having delivered the Queen’s Speech on October 14, 2019. Photo credit: © Yui Mok/PA Wire via ZUMA Press

The British monarchy is once again front and center in our consciousness. The Crown, along with Meghan and Harry, has helped pull back the curtain on a misguided romantic notion of royalty. More importantly, it’s given us a deeper look into what’s been called “the firm” or  “the institution.” 

In this special WhoWhatWhy podcast we go deeper into the corporate power, wealth, and antidemocratic nature of the British monarchy. We are joined by the Right Honorable Norman Baker, a former member of Parliament, and the author of …And What Do You Do?: What the Royal Family Don’t Want You to Know.

Baker argues that British journalism has done little to uncover the arrogance, entitlement, and hypocrisy that’s been a historical part of the monarchy and continues to this day. He expands on the mutually collaborative and beneficial relationship between the tabloids and the monarchy. 

He talks about the monarchy’s excessive use of public funds, the British land and property that has been appropriated and financially exploited by the royals, and the compounding of the problem as the royals have exempted themselves from taxation. (The Queen’s personal assets total $500 million; and the entire “institution,” which employs over a thousand people to serve the royals, is worth billions.)

Baker talks about what he sees as the royal attitudes about race and women, and he shatters the myth about the royals’ value to tourism.  

As for the future, he talks frankly about what needs to be done after Queen Elizabeth II is gone, and why reform — or bust — has to be what happens next.

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Full Text Transcript:

Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to the WhoWhatWhy podcast, I’m your host, Jeff Schechtman. It’s been a while since the British monarchy was so front and center in our consciousness. The Crown, on Netflix, and Meghan and Harry have pulled back the curtain on the sometimes romantic notion of royalty. But more importantly, it’s also given us a look into what’s been called The Firm or The Institution, the British monarchy and its wider political economies of wealth and power. Because behind the scenes is simply a corporation, engaged in capital accumulation, profit extraction, labor relations, national and international finance arrangements, and a network of legal status, all of which converge with, and impact on, contemporary Britain.

Jeff Schechtman: Prince Philip, the husband of the Queen, and the Duke of Edinburgh, is quoted to saying back in 1969 that “It’s a misconception to imagine that the monarchy exists in the interests of the Monarch. It doesn’t.”, he said “It exists in the interest of the people.” In fact, history tells us that nothing could be further from the truth. The monarchy is more precisely, in the words of the late Christopher Hitchens, “What you get when you found a political system on the family values of Henry VIII.”

Jeff Schechtman: To bring all of this in perspective, I’m joined by the right honorable Norman Baker. Norman Baker was a Member of Parliament from 1997 to 2015, and established a reputation as one of the most persistent parliamentary interrogators in the modern House of Commons. He was Undersecretary of State for Transport, Minister of State for Crime Prevention at the Home Office, he is the author of the acclaimed The Strange Death of David Kelly, the political memoir Against the Grain, and his most recent book about the British monarchy entitled And What Do You Do?: What The Royal Family Don’t Want You to Know. In his spare time, he’s also an established singer-songwriter and has released three albums, and it is my pleasure to welcome the Right Honorable Norman Baker to the WhoWhatWhy podcast. Norman, thanks so much for joining us.

Norman Baker: And very good to be here, Jeff, from the far away and distant London.

Jeff Schechtman: Well, it is great to have you here, thank you so much for doing this. First and foremost, when we think of the monarchy, one of the things that becomes crystal clear in all this talk about The Firm and The Institution, kind of brings this into bold relief that this is a business, this is a corporation. Talk about that first.

Norman Baker: It is The Firm, and that’s what Harry and Meghan called it in their recent interview with Oprah Winfrey, quite rightly. And if you look at the wealth that’s been accumulated over the years, you have to ask yourself how it is that the Queen is one of the richest people in the country, and not far behind is Prince Charles, and how was it Prince Philip was born in, I think, a fruit basket, and without doing very much, he’s ended up as a multimillionaire. And the answer, of course, is not they’ve won the lottery, not that they found a whole lot of money lying in the pavement. No, the answer is that they have accumulated money as a consequence of largess from the British public, and alternatively, from enabling their interest to be performed by the government of the day, by persuading the government of the day to frame legislation in their interests. That’s why they’re worth so much money.

Norman Baker: Now, I just have to say that, in this day and age, there is no room really for an imperialist monarchy. If you look at the monarchies which exist in the Benelux countries, in the Scandinavian countries, they have moved with the times, they are monarchies of the present day. When a King and queen take up office in those countries, they take an oath of allegiance to the Constitution. In this country, we have to take an oath of allegiance to the unelected person who is head of state. We are the only country I know of where the national anthem relates to one person, namely God Save the Queen, and really is inappropriate of a national anthem, which requires you to be both religious and to respect monarchy as a concept. The national anthem should be a unifying piece of music, but it isn’t in this particular case.

Norman Baker: So we have to move on, the other imperialist monarchies have gone. The Russian czar, the Austro-Hungarian empire, the German emperor, the French emperor, they’ve all gone. But we’re left with this imperial monarchy, which is vast, which occupies a huge number of buildings, which takes a great deal of public money, and for what? You mentioned my book, Jeff. I should just say, on the cover it’s a picture of Buckingham Palace. There are 44 of them on the balcony, what are they all doing? Why do we need these people, why are we paying for them?

Jeff Schechtman: To what extent does the accumulation of wealth and the kind of corporate nature of the monarchy, to what extent does that go back to colonial roots, to colonialism?

Norman Baker: Well, it goes back to… I wouldn’t quite say colonialism, I’d say it goes back to imperialism. To the idea that the king and queen are supreme, and okay, they may be technically constitutional monarchs, but actually, interestingly, they still, theoretically at least, have the same power which they did have centuries ago.

Norman Baker: In theory, the Queen could veto legislation. It would be very unwise for her to do so, but she has that power. And when the members of the Armed Forces, our Air Force, our Navy, our Army enlist, they take an oath of allegiance, not to the country, but to the monarching person. That may sound rather abstract and not important, but just to think back what happened to the late 1930s, with Edward VIII on the throne. Edward Viii was effectually a Nazi. He was certainly a deep Nazi sympathizer, and no friend of democracy. Unfortunately, he was made to abdicate before the World War started, but suppose he’d been in the throne in 1941? There was a movement in the UK to try to do a deal with Hitler, particularly from the aristocracy. The deal would have been to leave the British Empire alone and let the Nazi’s roam wild towards the east and towards the Slavic nations.

Norman Baker: Now fortunately, Churchill was here, that didn’t happen. But suppose Edward VIII on the throne had said to all those people in the Armed Forces, who’d signed allegiance to him, personally, “Lay down your weapons in the interest of the country,” what would have happened? We can’t have that situation arising, this power needs to be curtailed, returned to the democratic Parliament we have, and that’s where it should reside, not with a monarch.

Norman Baker: Do you know what I find it offensive? When I was elected as a Member of Parliament in 1997, I had won my seat thanks to the democratic mandate in my own constituent. I fought hard for that, and I won it. And why should i, in order to take my seat in the House of Commons to discharge my duties, in a democracy of over half my constituents, why should I have to take an oath of allegiance to an unelected person before I can take my seat? And indeed be fined if I speak in the House of Commons without having taken that oath. Suppose an entire political party was elected with a majority of the House of Commons on the basis of wanting to abolish the monarchy. If that happened, they would all have to take an oath of allegiance to the Queen, in order to take their seats, in order to abolish her. What a nonsense that is.

Norman Baker: We need to move on, and one of the problems with the Royal Family, which may not be their fault but is a consequence of it, is it ties Britain to the past. We need to look forward, not back, and there’s an element of the population here that takes comfort in the monarchy, that takes comfort in that kind of grand illusion that Britain is still sitting down at the world table with Churchill and Stalin and Roosevelt, as it did at Yalta in the Second World War that was still a great part. We’re not. We’re very nice country, but we’re not a great power anymore, and the Royal Family helps to maintain the illusion we are. We need to move on. It’s in the interest of this country we do move on, and the Royal Family is an obstacle to that.

Jeff Schechtman: What about the argument that some have made, and this relates to what the Royal Family costs the country, the argument that’s made that it is a kind of brand, that it brings in tourism, that it brings in a lot of dollars into the country?

Norman Baker: Brings in tourism… I don’t think it’s really appropriate to base a country’s constitutional arrangements on what tourists might like, that’s hardly a very constitutional argument to put forward. And in any case, let’s take the tourism argument at its face value. I wonder if your listeners know how many people visit each particular royal palace in Europe, and what the most popular royal palace is? Well, I’ll tell you. The one that gets the most visitors is the Palace at Versailles, and the French abolished their monarchy in 1848. So I think we could probably have Buckingham Palace open more for tourists if the Queen and her family were not in residence. So yes, there’s a brand, but it’s not necessarily a helpful brand.

Norman Baker: Okay, it means that people abroad have heard of Britain and they see the Royal Family, but that’s a misleading impression of what Britain is these days. I think the Britain that we should be advertising is one that is doing [inaudible] creative arts. That’s produced the Beatles, for example, that produced the world wide web thanks to Tim Berners-Lee. The technology base which we got in this country, the creativity, the ingenuity, that’s what we should be pushing, not some past centuries Imperial image, with state coaches and everything else. That’s [inaudible] where Britain should be, and it’s not helpful to present that image to the world.

Jeff Schechtman: Why is it that journalism, the tabloids, and the mainstream press in Britain has not been more aggressive in uncovering some of these aspects of the Royal Family?

Norman Baker: Well, the press is quite juvenile in some way, I’m afraid. The press concentrates on trivia, so we learn that Kate’s fallen out with Megan, or Meghan’s fallen out with Kate, or that Kate dropped an umbrella on her way into the car and had to pick it up. And shock, horror, she wasn’t supposed to pick it up, someone else should’ve picked it up for her. And all this stuff is just rubbish, it’s all just trivia, but that’s what the papers concentrates on. And there is a kind of unwritten deal between the Royal Family and the media, as a matter of fact, which is that if the Royal Family cooperates and give the media what they want, pictures of the kids and so on, then the media tend to leave them alone. If they want to go for them, they don’t go for them because you get access to the Royal Family and get some good stories. That’s the deal, which exists.

Norman Baker: So we have lots of trivia about the Royal Family in the paper, some of it quite intrusive, as a matter of fact, in terms of that privacy, which I don’t agree with, but their big issues, the finance, the influence of the Royal Family how the country’s run that’s passed by. And that’s one of the reasons I wrote my book, it’s just to turn the lights on this and say to people, “This is what’s actually at stake here.” I’m not interested, really, whether Kate and Meghan have fallen out, I’m far more interested in the fact that the Royal Family has become millionaires, billionaires at our expense.

Jeff Schechtman: I want to come back to this idea of money, and how much money The Firm has accumulated, how it’s accumulated that wealth, and why it’s had a direct cost to the country.

Norman Baker: Okay, well, I’m going to give you and your listeners a bit of a history lesson, if I may, Jeff, because it needs necessary. After 1760, the King, as it then was George II, had responsibility for all public spending. He funded the army, the civil service, everything that had to be funded, and obviously that became very onerous on him. He had lands which brought in money, but it wasn’t quite enough, and obviously as the state got larger, these bills for essential elements of the state became quite unwieldy. So in 1760 a deal was reached, whereby most of the royal lands were handed to the government, in other words, the public, and in return for that, the King was given a stipend, an annual sum of money called a Civil List in order to meet his expenditure.

Norman Baker: Now that system existed for 250 years until 2011. It wasn’t always run properly. In Victorian times, for example… So in 1760, the King had no money, let’s be quite clear about that. What happened then afterwards was that Victoria, in Victorian times, Prince Albert, Victoria’s husband, went to the government and said, “The Civil List isn’t enough, we’re not being able to meet our bills and discharge our duty to the nation,” So Parliament was persuaded to increase the Civil List quite significantly. Well, that was a lie, it was enough. [Inaudible] with the extra money, they went and bought a lot of property. So these so-called private properties which the Queen owns, like Sandringham or Balmoral, they were bought from public money on a false prospectus, on the prospectus that they were short on money, couldn’t discharge their duties. They could. It was [inaudible] Parliament gave them for their own personal benefit, and that’s typical of how they’ve accumulated money over the years, persuading politicians to give them more money, embarrassing them by saying, “We’re going to become broke soon if you don’t give us more money.”

Norman Baker: Prince Phillip tried that, you mentioned what he said in ’69. In ’69, he was saying, “We’ll have to sell a couple of polo ponies.” What absolute rubbish, but they’ve used this tactic over the years to get more and more money from the public purse, so that’s how they’ve accumulated a great deal of money. And then they managed to twist the taxation arrangements to suit themselves. So from 1952 to 1993, the Queen paid no income tax on her private money, her private investments, no income tax, and then between ’52 and ’93, the Queen was exempt from paying tax on investment income. Now we have a calculation from one of our tabloids, I think it was the Daily Mail around the time, that that exemption alone, just the taxation exemption on investment income, had given the Queen a windfall of 800 million pounds. 800 million pounds that should have been used to provide hospitals and schools and roads and railways for our country, instead was given to one of the richest people in the country.

Norman Baker: And then there’s death duties. When people die, they are subject to an assessment for death duties, except they’re not in the Royal Family. And when the Queen Mother died, no death duties were paid. And that was a loss to the treasury of an estimated 25 million pounds. 25 million pounds given to the Queen, who was already one of the richest people in the country, that should have gone to us.

Norman Baker: There are all sorts of medieval archaic arrangements here. For example, the Queen still has control of what’s called the Duchy of Lancaster, as part of the UK. That wasn’t transferred in 1716 because it was worth nothing in 1716, and nobody thought about it. But it’s worth a great deal now, and the archaic arrangements, which existed there, are if somebody in the Duchy of Lancaster area dies without a will, their estate goes to the Queen. To the Queen, not to the tax payer, to the Queen. Now these are ridiculous arrangements which exist and should have been abolished years ago. But it’s not simply that we’ve got favorable taxation arrangements for Prince Charles, the Duchy of Cornwall, which also should be in public hands and he’s grasped hold of it, saying it belongs to the private estate. He calls it a private estate. Well, private estates in the UK pay something called corporation tax on their profits, except the Duchy of Cornwall doesn’t. So on the one hand, it’s private and we can’t find out about it, and he exempted himself from Freedom of Information, on the other hand, it’s public and doesn’t pay corporation tax. So they argue it’s private when it suits them, and they argue it’s public when it suits them.

Norman Baker: And all these wheezes, I’ve just given you a few, all these wheezes means they’ve accumulated vast amounts of money at public expense over the years. It’s disgraceful. And in 2011, just to finish the history of our major, in 2011, the Royal Family got what it had been arguing for for a very long time. Prince Charles had been arguing for years. Prince Charles like to accumulate public money for himself. He argued for a long time that the money from the Crown Estates, these are the lands that were given to the public in 1716 in return for annual Civil List, that the Crown Estates really ought to belong to the Royal Family because they were Crown Estates, the word Crown was what he majored on.

Norman Baker: Of course, he argued that they should come back to the Royal Family. He wasn’t arguing, of course, that the Royal Family should pick up the bill for the Army and the Civil Service, and all the things they’d lost in 1756. Oh no, he wanted a one way traffic of all the benefits, and none of the disbenefits. So in 2011, the Civil List with the abolished and replaced by a linkage, quite improper, a linkage between what the Royal Family got and the profits of the Crown Estate. And the consequences of that is this, in 2011, the Royal Family received 7.9 million from the Civil List. By 2019, that figure had gone up to 82.3 million, a more than 10 fold increase at a time of austerity in this country. So they are coining it in, they are coining it in at public expense, coining and conning the public at large in this country. So that’s a disgrace.

Jeff Schechtman: What do we not know about the finances of the Royal Family? How much is public, and certainly a great deal is, but how much is hidden away behind secrecy? What do we not know about what’s going on with the Royal Family finances?

Norman Baker: Well, to be honest with you, most people don’t know what I’ve just been telling you for the last 10 minutes. That’s not generally known. What the Royal Family says is that, “Oh, we’re a very good value, we’re the equivalent cost of a postage stamp or something each year,” or a cup of tea or some other nonsense. That is a very narrow assessment of taking one or two figures and extrapolating from that. It doesn’t take into account all the things I’ve been talking about, the exemptions from tax, the dealing behind the scenes, the money that comes from people who are intestate when they die. None of that’s included, and nor is the security, by the way. Security for the Royal Family comes to about 200 million pounds a year, by latest estimate, enormous amounts of money. Now, of course nobody wants the Royal Family to be unsafe, but do we need 24 hour protection for members of the Royal Family you’ve never heard of?

Norman Baker: Who is Princess Alexandra? You don’t know who she is? Well, she gets royal protection. Why do these people get royal protection? It’s not what happens in Norway or Sweden or Holland or Belgium, it doesn’t happen that way. But over here, they want it, it’s a kind of status symbol, so we pay for it through the public purse. So a great deal about the royal finances is not known, instead they trot out this lie each year about how much they cost, and it’s the cost of a postage stamp or something each, and that becomes the figure that’s put in the papers because they won’t challenge it, most of them won’t challenge it.

Norman Baker: I’ll just give you one example of the egregious nature of how the royals are, they are so money grasping. Here’s an example. Buckingham Palace was down to be refurbished, it was in a bit of a state, to be honest with you, and I think the cost, quoted in about 2009, to do some necessary repairs was about 10 million pounds. And we got a new Prime Minister in 2016 with Theresa May, and a new Chancellor, Philip Hammond, then the palace tried it on. It went to see them, and said, “Oh, we need to repair Buckingham Palace, and it’s going to cost 359 million pounds, 359 million pounds. So whatever that is, about $500 million, and the Prime Minister said, “Yes, okay, we’ll pay for that.”

Norman Baker: So suddenly this thing has gone up 35 times in cost, and we paid the whole lot. And now, presently going on, is this gold-plated, all bells and whistles refurbishment of Buckingham Palace is going on at this particular point. And here’s the rub of it, that Buckingham Palace was open to tourists to bring in some cash. They get charged quite a lot to go around Buckingham Palace in the summer months, and guess what? We pay, we, the taxpayer, pay for the refurbishment, but the Queen keeps the money for the tickets that she sells. Nice work if you can get it, isn’t it?

Jeff Schechtman: If in fact there was a desire, or there was a government that wanted to address this and do something about some of the things you’re talking about, how ingrained is the monarchy? How difficult would it be to begin to roll back any of this?

Norman Baker: Well, the politicians, by and large, are unwilling to take the matter on. A lot of politicians share my view about this, and my concerns, but they don’t necessarily want to push it, they don’t see it as the first item on the agenda. It’s always number 93 on the agenda, so it never gets dealt with, and its regarded as potentially risky, and a potential vote loser. So it never gets dealt with, and I’ve got a chapter in my book called Weak At The Knees, which sets out, in despairing detail, how politicians have given in time and time again to the Royal Family. We never quite have a majority, or anything like a majority, of politicians, won’t do anything about it.

Norman Baker: But then, at any one time, even when the monarchy was at its most popular, about 25% of the population in this country want a republic, even when the monarchy’s sitting high in the opinion polls. Well, 25% of the House of Commons, if 25% of 650 MPs, whatever that is. What’s that? 325, 160 MPs, you’ll never find more than 10 MPs at any one time who will come out publicly and say that they want the monarchy either abolished or even reformed. They won’t say so. But they’d say it privately, but they won’t say it publicly. I’m one of the few who ever did that.

Jeff Schechtman: How does this play out in the broader Commonwealth?

Norman Baker: Well, the Queen as well-respected, let me say this first of all, the Queen as an individual is well-respected in this country, and well respected across the world. And she seemed to have done a decent job, she seemed to have been diligent and given public service. She hadn’t really made many mistakes in public, if any hardly, which is quite an achievement over her very long reign. So I think people are reluctant to say too much publicly about the monarchy while she is on the throne. I think the situation will change dramatically, actually, when she goes and we have a change at the top. And of course the benefit principle means that you don’t get to choose who’s your head of state, you get whoever’s next in line, whether they’re any good or not. So you can have someone diligent, like Elizabeth II at the moment, or someone who’s a basic Nazi, like Edward VIII. It’s just whoever comes up with the rations, really, you get.

Norman Baker: So the Commonwealth, you asked about the Commonwealth… The Commonwealth doesn’t want to upset the Queen, I think, who’s been very loyal to the Commonwealth. But that will change, I think, when she goes and Prince Charles takes over. I think, for example, that Australia will become a republic. I have to ask myself, “Why is a country, the other side of the world, which is a fully functioning, independent country, why has it still got this kind of head of state back from colonial days in the UK?” It doesn’t make any sense to me, so I think Australia needs to, and the other countries too, frankly, should find their own head of state rather than relying on ours.

Jeff Schechtman: Do you think attitudes will change, specifically, once Charles moves up to the throne?

Norman Baker: Well, I think a lot of the things I’m saying will, and people are mumbling, will then be said in more vocal ways. There is, I think, unhappiness with the Royal Family, and Harry and Megan, by the way, are encapsulating some of that concern. The Royal Family is ultra conservative, small C, and therefore when Megan says there are issues about race, frankly, that sounds credible to many people.

Norman Baker: So I think when Prince Charles takes over, he hasn’t got the same affection from the public as the Queen has. He upset many, many people the way he dealt with Diana, which was seen to be duplicitous and unfair on Diana. “There are three people in this marriage,” she famously said, and there were. So that’s in the British memory, that, and people don’t like that about him. They don’t like the fact that he’s hypocritical on climate change, and he goes around the world lecturing people on the need to cut carbon, but does so in private jets, taking vast numbers of servants with him everywhere he goes. They don’t like the fact that he’s money-grabbing [inaudible], and seen to be money grabbing. They don’t like the fact he’s seen to be a bit, in many people’s eyes, a bit weird, in terms of an attitude towards architecture or other such matters.

Norman Baker: So I don’t think Charles will command the same respect or devotion, almost, that the Queen does. So the Royal Family, I think, will have a very difficult and challenging time when he takes over, and my advice to him, not that he wants advice from me, but my advice to him is you got to reform the whole family pretty quick, because the tree that doesn’t bend will surely break.

Jeff Schechtman: Is there any sense that he would do that, that he would reform the Royal Family?

Norman Baker: Well, I think there is a sense that he wants to slim it down. He wants to slim it down by cutting out his brothers and having a much narrower base as the Scandinavian monarchy and the Benelux countries have. So, in that sense, I think he does recognize a need to change, but what he doesn’t recognize is the need for him to change himself, or his attitudes. He’s very willing to reform other people, but not reform himself.

Jeff Schechtman: Talk a little bit about the younger members of the Royal Family. Are they popular, and is there a generational shift that is ahead, as far as the Royal Family is concerned?

Norman Baker: Well, there aren’t many members of the Royal Family who are deemed to be younger, all the Queen’s children are over 50, for example. Presumably you’re talking about William and Kate and Harry and Meghan. Well, Harry and Meghan have got off, has taken their boat with them and gone off to California so they don’t really count anymore, so basically you’re talking about William and Kate. And I think people don’t mind them very much, I think William’s a bit dull, seems a bit dull, and Kate’s rather staid, which is what female women members of the Royal Family are encouraged to be. I don’t think they excite people. Harry and Meghan did excite people. They were an opportunity for the Royal Family to move forward into the 21st century, or even to move into the 20th century or the 19th. There’s an opportunity there to embrace a woman of color, to embrace Harry, who was a different sort of person from his brother and from his other relatives in the Royal Family, and they could have actually moved forward in that, but they didn’t.

Norman Baker: And the thing is, because it’s an ultra conservative institution, people that come along with new ideas and a breath of fresh air are not welcomed, they are resisted. Look at Harry’s mother, it just happened before. When Diana came along, she had her own mind, an intelligent woman. She wanted to campaign against landmines, and she was the first royal to hold someone’s hand who was suffering from AIDS. She was quite radical, but very, very popular as a consequence. And the royals should have concluded from that that this is the way to gain popularity, to move forward. Instead, she was squeezed out, and so was Megan, because what the Royal Family dislikes above everything else is an intelligent woman who should be, in their view, a simpering sidekick to ker husband, rather than someone with her own brain, who can make her own policies up and have her own opinion about matters.

Norman Baker: So I think the dislike of Meghan in the Royal Family was not actually largely based on race, I think it was based on the fact that A, she was a woman of intelligence, and B, based on class rather than race.

Jeff Schechtman: And yet this in a country that has a queen?

Norman Baker: Yes, I know has a queen, but that’s almost, in a sense, a accident of history, that’s been assimilated. But we had Mrs. Thatcher as Prime Minister, and she was extremely right wing, so I don’t think it necessarily follows that because the women at the top is a woman, that women therefore benefit. I don’t think that happens at all. Women didn’t benefit from Mrs. Thatcher when she was Prime Minister.

Jeff Schechtman: Tell us a little bit about the people behind the scenes, thousands of people, literally, that work for The Firm, and a hierarchy within that organization like a corporation. Who are those hidden people, and how much power do they have?

Norman Baker: Well, the Queen’s got quite a large entourage, I think, from memory, about a thousand employees, of whom, by the way, very few are mixed race or black at all. Those employees range from people who are deeply underpaid servants, valets and people like that, to squeeze the toothpaste onto Prince Charles’ toothbrush in the morning, it’s what they do, to set out their clothes for them, to bring them papers when they’ve been ironed in the morning for them to read, that sort of menial task which has been there for centuries.

Norman Baker: On the other hand, there are people who are busy scrutinizing legislation, working out what it means for the Royal Family, turning up at Ministers that they object to particular bits of it which will adversely affect the private interests of the Queen and Prince Charles, that sort of thing goes on. There’s a liaison, of course quite properly, between the palace and the government about overseas business and so on, so there are a lot of people that are employed by the Queen and her family, many of whom, frankly, should not be that because they’re undertaking menial tasks that, frankly, the Royal Family should undertake for themselves.

Jeff Schechtman: Are there individuals with real power behind the scenes?

Norman Baker: Well, yes, absolutely. People who work in the Queen’s private secretary, people like that, the Lord Chamberlain. These people have real power, and they communicate the wishes of the Royal Family to the government. In fact, sometimes they’re more powerful people, or should be more powerful, and more pro-monarchy than the monarchy itself sometimes. So of course they’re all completely [inaudible], we don’t know who they are, but I perhaps do and some other’s do, but they don’t make themselves very well known to the public at large. They are hidden figures behind the scenes.

Norman Baker: And then there are all the ludicrous people. I’ve forgotten all the titles who they all are, they’re in my book, but the Queen’s physicians and people who deal with swans on the river and all that sort of stuff. A whole lot of garbage, really, from centuries ago is still there. If someone tells me they’re someone called Keeper of the Belfry, I tend to believe them, because the [inaudible] people still exist. Silver sorting away thing, gold sticking away, all these people are still there.

Jeff Schechtman: You’ve written about the actual power that the monarchy could have or could exercise, and about this idea of Queen’s consent. Talk about that.

Norman Baker: Yeah. So the Queen, theoretically, has absolute power, and of course she cannot be prosecuted. So when she was caught driving without a seat belt, which is an offense in this country, no one could prosecute her. And indeed, she could commit murder and no one could prosecute her, because it’s Regina, meaning the Queen, Regina versus something, that’s every court case. You can’t have Regina versus Regina.

Norman Baker: So they don’t exercise political power in the sense of changing, for example, where the government’s got an education bill. They don’t kind of change those sorts of things at all in government, they don’t have that sort of power. What they do have power to do is to protect themselves and enrich themselves, and that’s the part of the use for their own benefit behind the scenes. So Queen’s consent is a concept going back centuries, but still there, still exists, and it has two functions, really. One is that, for no very good reason, any legislation which requires the Queen to sign off is presented to the Queen in advance, and the government will recommend whether or not the Queen’s consent should be given.

Norman Baker: Well, obviously for government bills, it recommends it should be given, so that’s a kind of irrelevant and unnecessarily step that’s taken. It also can suggest to the Queen that private members bills, by opposition members, shouldn’t be given Queen’s consent, they can stop them actually progressing in the Commons. So the government can, in effect, hide behind the Queen and get her to refuse Queen’s consent in order to stop an embarrassing bill from an opposition member. There was a bill about Iraq, in about 1998, where the government of the day used the Queen to refuse permission for the matter to be debated in the House of Commons. Quite outrageous, however, the particularly egregious use of Queen’s consent comes in another way, which is the Queen’s consent is deemed to be necessary for matters which affect the private possessions and interest of the Queen, the private possessions.

Norman Baker: So just think about that for a second, that here’s an individual who may be losing out on a piece of government legislation. They have to be consulted upon it, and then they could actually stop that applying to them. I remember sitting as an MP on the bill for the Animal Welfare bill, which came out in about 2005, 2006, and a good piece of legislation. And one of the parts of the legislation said that inspectors from the RSPCA, that’s the animal charity that looks after animals and can [inaudible] prosecutions, inspectors from the RSPCA would henceforth be allowed to enter private land if a suspected animal abuse was taking place.

Norman Baker: Very good provision in my view, except that the Royal Family, the Queen, said, “Oh, no, I don’t want to supply into my private estates, in the Sandringham or Balmoral,” estates, of course, which I explained earlier had been bought with public money, “I don’t want them in my private estates”, so the law was amended to exclude her private lands from the RSPCA. That’s just an abuse of power.

Jeff Schechtman: Beyond the potential for abuse of power, what is your sense of the degree of corruption that goes on with respect to all of this wealth that The Firm has?

Norman Baker: Well, that sort of depends how you define corruption. If corruption means are they taking backhanders? No, they’re not taking backhanders. Though, I must say in Prince Andrew’s case, there are some very interesting financial exchanges which have yet to be explained, let’s put it that way. I don’t think they do that.

Norman Baker: What they do do is they persuade the government to take the course of action which benefits them. Whether you’d call that corruption, I don’t know.

Jeff Schechtman: Given what’s gone on with Prince Andrew and the more recent developments with Meghan and Harry, is the Royal Family under siege? Is this going to force them in some way to address some of these issues you’ve been talking about?

Norman Baker: Well, as I say, I think that nothing will happen while the Queen’s on the throne, because nobody wants to upset the Queen, particularly, as an individual rather than the monarchy. The Queen is, in a sense, separate from the monarchy, so people want to not rock the boat while she’s 94, 95 in April, and she’s been seen to have done a good job, by and large. So nobody wants to really upset her.

Norman Baker: So quite a lot is going to be mumbled behind the scenes for the time being, but I think it may all change when Charles comes to the throne. That’s a difficult and challenging time for the monarchy. He have to do something interesting and reformers to get it right, so if he doesn’t, he’ll leave himself, I think, wide open.

Jeff Schechtman: And what could happen if he doesn’t do that?

Norman Baker: If he gets it badly wrong, then there’ll be more clamor for other amendments to the Royal Family and their power, or ultimately, the number of people who want to see a republic will go up. No, I don’t think there’ll be public very shortly, but I do think that there will be a lot more just satisfaction expressed, and there’ll be pressure on MPs to write in some of these excesses.

Norman Baker: For example, the Queen’s consent you talked about, that could be abolished tomorrow by a simple vote in the House of Commons and a vote in the House of Lords. That’s all it requires, it doesn’t require anything else. It’s a convention, like so much in this country. We have, as you know, unlike America [inaudible] in this regard. You’ve got quite a wonderful Constitution, in most regards anyway, and we’ve got a unwritten Constitution. Well, we have an unwritten Constitution that’s not worth the paper it’s not written on, in many regards. But some of these conventions should be undone, like that, overnight, and I think if Charles doesn’t handle himself well, then he may find some of these conventions being undone.

Jeff Schechtman: The Right Honorable Norman Baker, his most recent book is And What Do You Do?: What the Royal Family Don’t Want You To Know. I thank you so much for spending time with us today on the WhoWhatWhy podcast.

Norman Baker: You’re welcome, and I hope your American listeners, in particular, will have an opportunity to look at my book, which I’m happy to say is now out in the States. A variable at all good book shops, and probably some not very good book shops as well.

Jeff Schechtman: Thank you so much, and thank you for listening and for joining us here on WhoWhatWhy. I hope you join us next week for another radio WhoWhatWhy podcast, I’m Jeff Schechtman.

Jeff Schechtman: If you liked this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to WhoWhatWhy.org/donate.


Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from Jack Pease / Flickr (CC BY 2.0) and HelenHates Peas / Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).

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