Keeping ma'am about the money

Television - Andrew Billen on the fascinating secrets of the Queen's counting house

In the New Statesman's last anti-jubilee number, the one it published in 1977, Alex Brummer wrote an excellent account of the monarch's financial affairs entitled "Secrecy in the counting house". His conclusion was that, in its constitutional role, the monarchy had shown itself flexible and evolutionary over the years, but that, in money matters, it remained feudal. "It is a position that needs to be modernised if the next Jubilee is to be even remotely relevant to the state of modern Britain," he wrote. On 25 May, Channel 4 sat us down to a stern lecture about the pecuniary arrangements at Buckingham Palace which will have led older NS readers to exhale "plus ca change" from between gritted teeth.

But, I hear newer ones ask, did not the Queen, in 1993, her annus horribilis, graciously agree to pay tax at the top rate of 40 per cent? The historian Dr Justin Champion, who led the investigation Secrets of the Palace, spelled out why this deal, although deplored as a "great shame" by the programme's token royalist, Andrew Roberts, promised more than it delivered. For a start, monarchical tax avoidance was not a cherished tradition but, according to the author Philip Hall, who unearthed the key memo, one cooked up by an infatuated Winston Churchill specifically for Elizabeth R. The sweetheart deal, sweet in 1993, was sweeter still in 1952 when the base rate was nearly 50 per cent and climbed to 97.5 per cent. Post-1993, the Queen still does not pay tax on her £5m-a-year profit from the Duchy of Lancaster estate (which includes the Strand in London), because it is deemed not part of her private wealth but the public's (although the Duke of Lancaster is none other than the Queen herself).

A similar ambiguity of ownership surrounds the gifts that the Queen receives on her travels, baubles that do not, unlike gifts to MPs, have to be declared either to the public or to the taxman. A former royal correspondent recalled a royal visit to the Arab states during which one of the Queen's hosts gave her a gold palm tree dripping with black pearl coconuts, a curio worth at the time nearly £4m and which, like everything else, would by now have increased its market value considerably by mere fact of passing through her hands.

We do know, however, that the Queen owns art worth nearly £7bn, and that her collection of paintings is three times the size of the National Gallery's. The new exhibition of 450 works, celebrated on the following night in BBC1's breathless "sneak preview", Royal Treasures (7pm), looks pretty meagre once you know that. If she does hold these works "in trusteeship" for the nation, when, one might ask, is the nation going to come into its inheritance? At present, at any one time, only 0.5 per cent of the collection is out on loan.

Presumably the Rembrandts are instead decorating her five residences, to which she travels at public expense in order to keep to a private timetable of holidays - Windsor for Easter, Balmoral for the Glorious Twelfth and so on. The astronomical upkeep of these palaces is not, to be fair, for the Royal Family's benefit alone, for the House of Commons public accounts committee discovered, after much questioning, that the estates contain more than 250 "grace-and-favour" apartments whose rents are either non-existent or based on "the ability to pay". Prince Michael of Kent, for example, who undertakes no royal duties, lives in an apartment at Kensington Palace with seven reception rooms for which he manages to scrape together the princely sum of £69 a week.

In the retrospective light cast by recent but predictable deaths, Channel 4's previous hatchet jobs on Princess Margaret and the Queen Mother may now look unnecessarily virulent. Secrets of the Palace was not, however, an ad hominem attack on the Queen. Its perfectly sober argument was that the internal workings of the monarchy are opaque and that this opacity is deliberate. The royal machine is engineered to accumulate wealth for the Crown rather than the country, and spreads what largesse it does among a fantastically small and privileged section of society. For instance, 26 of the nation's lord lieutenants (the Queen's vicar in each county) went to Eton; nine out of ten are men; all are white.

On Wednesday 29 May, BBC1 showed a collection of amateur videos of royal walkabouts under the cheeky yet still servile title The People's Queen (9pm). In fact, Elizabeth II is about as much the people's queen as Elizabeth I was - perhaps less so, because unlike in the past, when monarchs tended to die in debt, their treasuries knackered by wars fought on their country's behalf, she may leave her son with roughly £800m more than she inherited, mainly thanks to paying no tax for 40 years. (The sum is uncertain because since 1976 her share dealing has been conducted in secret by the Bank of England Nominees.)

Mervyn Jones, in the best polemic of that 1977 New Statesman, wrote: "No one who believes either in the claims of merit or in the pursuit of equality can defend the system." This remains the theoretical case against the monarchy. Secrets of the Palace, although it reported more in a spirit of fascination than republicanism, showed that, in its practice, the system is equally indefensible.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer on the Times