This weekend, Queen Elizabeth was accused by Britain’s most republican-minded newspaper, the Guardian, of using an arcane parliamentary procedure to avoid disclosing her shareholdings.
The palace has brushed off the accusation. They insist that the mechanism known as Queen’s Consent, in which legislation that may directly affect the interests of the monarch is presented to her before being debated in the House of Commons, is purely ceremonial and has never been abused for Her Majesty’s benefit.
Queen’s Consent should not be confused with Royal Assent, which is when the monarch signs off on prepared legislation after debate, as a kind of constitutional coda.
The Guardian has unearthed some correspondence which does, however, clearly show the queen’s solicitors objecting very strongly to proposed legislation in the 1970s to identify all shareholders of publicly listed companies.
The queen’s advisers were clearly aghast at the prospect of her “embarrassing” and extensive shareholdings being laid out to public view. Following meetings with the queen’s lawyers, the government inserted a clause into the law granting itself the power to exempt “heads of state” from new transparency measures.
The arrangement helped place “a veil of secrecy over the queen’s private shareholdings and investments until at least 2011,” the Guardian claims.
In the 1980s, the queen was routinely assumed to be the richest woman in the world.
The assumption was copper-fastened when, in 1989, The Sunday Times began publishing its annual “Rich List.” In pride of place at number one, there she was, Queen Elizabeth II, with a fortune of £5.2 billion ($7.1 billion). Before the days of Jeff Bezos, this was a lot of money.
Over the intervening years, the queen’s fortune has appeared to slip, and the 2015 list marked the first year Queen Elizabeth II was not even among the list’s top 300 most wealthy Britons since its inauguration.
The queen, had, of course, not lost the lot on GameStop. Instead, the compilers of the list had stopped counting as hers assets that actually belonged to the nation but were technically held in the monarch’s name. Most notably excluded were the vast Royal Collection of art, the state palaces such as Buckingham Palace, and the actual seabed around the U.K., which is owned by the crown up to 12 nautical miles from the coast. The queen’s private residences, Sandringham and Balmoral, continue to be included in the count.
The queen is these days thought to have a private fortune of around $500 million, with Prince Charles worth about $400 million.
The vast majority of the British monarchy’s wealth comes from inherited lands and investments, and part of the reason that the family has been able to accrue such vast wealth is that there is no inheritance tax, or death duties, payable on estates passed monarch to monarch.
British taxpayers also support the royal family through a “sovereign grant” issued by the treasury.
In 2019, the grant total amounted to $104 million.