Under an amendment to the Newspaper Columnists (Indolent Intros and Miscellaneous Bandwagon-Jumping) Act 2001, passed in an emergency Commons vote on Monday night, it is now an arrestable offence to begin any article about scrounging and/or poverty without reference to Channel 4’s Benefits Street.
In this unnerving light, sincerest thanks to the grandest benefits claimant of them all for making the task so easy today. Like so many elderly people whose incomes have been slashed by negligible interest rates, Her Britannic Majesty finds herself in much reduced circumstances. Those touching photos of her fireplace inhabited by a heater with only one electric bar glowing finally make sense.
Whether this depressing state of affairs should be an affair for the State, by way of a hike in the grant given to her on our behalf by the Treasury, is a question to which we will come after a résumé of the facts revealed this week by the Commons Public Accounts Committee.
This body, chaired with such engaging reticence by Margaret Hodge, finds that Royal Household advisers are profligate imbeciles (I paraphrase minimally; even Hodgy on a headline hunt would not be quite so blunt). Their austerity efficiency savings have been a dismal 5 per cent, compared with a third at some government departments, and they have not monetised such revenue streams as tourist tickets to palaces to anything like their potential.
So it is that we read a tale of heart-rending queenly penury. Her homes are falling to bits (the Buckingham Palace wiring and boiler system have not been modernised in decades, and the roofs are in a shocking state), while a reserve fund insuring her against the bailiffs stands at a bare million, down from £35m in 2001. She has not been on the blower to Wonga yet, apparently, but unless radical steps are taken it may only be a matter of time.
Sue Townsend saw this coming in her 1992 novel The Queen And I, imagining the monarch dethroned by an incoming republican Labour government, and transplanted with her family to a vaguely Benefits Street-style Midlands council estate. Although the restyled Mrs Windsor refuses to open the door to a social worker, she adapts quite well to life on a state pension (Philip, not so much). At the book’s conclusion, however, it transpires that this was a Bobby Ewing-esque dream, and that John Major had been re-elected.
Although a recession-struck Major went on to betray Conservative instincts by depriving a lachrymose Queen of her beloved yacht, Britannia, one expects better of David Cameron on more than political and class grounds. He is her fifth cousin, after all, and as a fervent advocate of families sticking together and helping each other out in difficult circs, the least he could do is bump up the Sovereign Grant (the Civil List as was) to replenish the reserve, and leave a bit over to fix the dodgy roofs.
This will not be a massively popular opinion – the only Independent reader who might agree, I suspect, is that passionate fan of the Queen, my mother – but no more than with pregnancy, can you have a partial British monarchy. You may loathe the concept of royalty itself, and think it infantilising (though the Netherlands, Norway and other countries we regard as grown-up are not republics). You may think entrenched and inherited hyper-privilege an obscenity, and yearn for the day when Sue Townsend’s heavy satire becomes stark reality and the Queen moves to Birmingham to battle White Dee for the title of Benefits Street Matriarch. If the Royal Household adopts Ms Hodge’s advice to take cost-cutting tips from the Treasury – the one that invested untold billions in RBS – that may yet happen.
For now, however, with the institution more popular and secure than in centuries, we are stuck with a resolutely non-bicycling, unScandinavian monarchy which – for all the Queen Mum looking the East End in the face some 70 years ago – still exists to accentuate its distinction from the rest of us rather than the similarity. On that basis, and given the reported incompetence of the Queen’s advisers, it would be simpler and more elegant to bump up the annual per capita contribution to her income from about 70p to a pound.
We simply cannot countenance the thought of an 87-year-old woman carting a Vermeer off to Sotheby’s every few weeks because she cannot otherwise afford to heat her houses. Whatever the name of the street, or in this case Mall, benefits exist to allow a little dignity those who cannot reasonably be expected to help themselves. That is a sovereign principle, or should be, and it would be the grossest inverted snobbery not to extend it to Her Majesty the Queen.
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