When Republicans like myself mouth off against the Windsors, we always add the caveat ‘But the Queen’s different!’ What we mean is that among a menagerie of malingerers – her mother left behind £7million in debts when she died; her sister, a sottish snob who crippled herself during a miscalculation with boiling bath water; her husband a mouthy bounder; her sons a hopeless shower – she alone seems to understand that the price a modern monarchy must pay is not to appear to be layabouts who believe that life – and the public purse – owes them a high standard of living.
Stories about the Queen’s down-home decency have permeated our culture; we lap up reports of her liking for turning off lights, shivering by two-bar electric fires and eating something eggy from a tray while watching re-runs of Dad’s Army. Having grown up in the shadow of the Abdication and being related to foreign monarchies whose high-handedness propelled them head-first into the high-piled tumbrils of history, she is aware of how extravagance can lead to penury. Her popularity remains as high now as it was when she came to the throne in 1952; a recent YouGov poll found that 71 per cent thought she should remain head of state.
But this does not mean that we see the Queen as above criticism – somewhere, in the back of our minds, pushed away behind the bunting, we are aware that it’s far better to be a citizen than a subject, that ancestor worship holds a people back. Occasionally, our patience snaps. In 1997, when she failed to cry at Diana’s funeral, her defenders huffed: ‘Oh, that’s just the Queen’s way – she was raised never to show emotion!’. But just a few weeks later, Her Majesty was seen shedding copious tears for the decommissioned royal yacht Britannia. The Windsor fire of 1992 led directly to the Queen paying income tax for the first time, following an outcry that public funds were expected to tart it up. Undaunted, in 2004, the Queen asked for a poverty handout to help heat her palaces but was refused because, understandably, ministers feared a public relations disaster.
And now the Paradise Papers have revealed £10m of the Queen’s money was invested offshore. Of course, there have been the usual routine squeals about the Queen knowing nothing of it. But her thoroughness and conscientiousness is legendary; the idea of her carelessly chucking her money around is a complete departure from the prudent cheese-parer we hold so dear. Of course such behaviour is perfectly legal. But it is also profoundly ugly. I was only ever a modest millionaire, and that not for long – get all you can, give all you can is my fiscal philosophy – but in my high-earning days I sacked three accountants for even suggesting that I should avoid tax, and it remains one of the many reasons I’m so pleased with myself.
It’s things like this – and crying for a boat, and attempting to get hold of poor pensioners’ perks – that makes one marvel that we so readily embrace the Queen as One Of Us when she is so clearly One Of Them; the head of a very grand family who has learnt to mimic the middle classes as a kind of protective colouring. Shrewd if not intellectual, she saw where being hoity-toity got the Russian and French monarchies and made sure we saw her as The Sensible One, A Safe Pair Of Hands. And yes, Stoicism is extremely attractive – no one admires a self-pitying sloth. But perhaps Stoicism is so attractive that we have mistaken it for integrity.
The Oxford English Dictionary define ‘noblesse oblige’ thus: ‘suggests noble ancestry constrains to honourable behaviour; privilege entails to responsibility.’ But increasingly we see this behaviour among the American rich, who we like to deride as savages compared to our own alms-giving aristocrats. It’s always been a rather unsettling fact that in the USA, the richer a person becomes the higher proportion of their income they give to charity, while here the reverse is true. In 2009, Bill Gates and Warren Buffet founded The Giving Pledge, whereby they and other billionaires pledge to give at least half of their wealth to philanthropy. Instead, we have a Queen whose private estate squirrels away money in BrightHouse, a business which specialises in squeezing money out of our sceptred isles’ poorest subjects.