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Robert Thomas: The scrutiny of Royal accounts should be sensitive and sympathetic

Robert Thomas is reading for a Ph.D. at Cambridge, and is Registrar of the University Conservative Association

The Sovereign Grant Bill is designed to simplify and unify the way in which the Royal Household is funded. It will replace the Civil List with a Grant, the size of which will be tied to the profits of the Crown Estate, and it is, says the Chancellor, sustainable, flexible, and accountable. It is hard to take issue with a grant being either sustainable or flexible. That the Sovereign should be provided with a reliable and long-term source of funding for her official duties, which may be spent as circumstances dictate, is as uncontroversial as it is crucial.

The notion of accountability, however, must be applied with genuine caution, and with due sympathy for and deference to the purpose of Monarchy. “Transparency” has become a fashionable word, and we are all aware of its ramifications when applied to government departments or the House of Commons. It means meetings, speeches, debates, and receipts being publicly available for meticulous scrutiny, and it means that Ministers and MP’s maintain the trust and confidence of the people they represent.

The Royal Family, however, is different. The Queen has earned and maintained the affections of her subjects not by adopting the modern modes of transparency, but by devoting her life to their service, and by remaining, for the six decades of her reign, the embodiment of dignity, diligence, and duty. Ministers and MP’s come and go, and it is their very transience which necessitates the reliance upon the tangible mechanics of transparency. But necessary though they may be, such mechanisms cannot be said to be commensurate with the dignity of the Head of State, and we should not expect Her Majesty, with her unimpeachable record of service, to have to jump through the same hoops as the Commons.

Indeed, it is among the central tenets of Monarchy not to be transparent, but to be, at least, translucent; a little mysterious; a fraction out of reach – to be, to use another word, special. This is a point which needs very little elucidation, since it is borne out so often and so clearly at every Royal visit, every State occasion, and every wedding. Few invitations are more coveted in the national consciousness than one to a Palace garden party, and no symbols of success more prized than the honours bestowed by the Sovereign.

Jacob Rees-Mogg has described those who would pore over the Royal Household’s every last receipt as “inelegant, ungallant and improper”. He is right, of course – and stout-hearted fellows will no doubt be banging their desks at his words – and he is right on the strength of more than chivalry and sentimentalism. He is right because he understands the full range of the Sovereign’s duties, both public and constitutional, and appreciates how difficult it is to delineate what is an “official” duty, and what is not.

The accounts for official duties must, of course, be subject to scrutiny. Mechanisms and checks must be set in place to ensure that the level of funding is appropriate, and the way in which it is spent is responsible. Nevertheless, it is profoundly important that the Royal Household is not treated as just another government department, nor just another topic that an enterprising back-bencher might use to make a name for himself. The Crown maintains a position above the adversarial discourse of politics, but remains intimately connected to it through the Sovereign’s right to be consulted, to encourage, and to warn. There is a danger that this unique – and highly propitious – arrangement may be damaged if the Public Accounts Committee are over-zealous in their endeavours, and do not conduct themselves with the sensitivity which the scrutiny requires.

The Comptroller and Auditor General must steer a conservative course, and err on the side of discretion when laying information before the Public Accounts Committee. To do otherwise could cause irrevocable constitutional damage, as well as undermine the dignity of the Sovereign. We know that MP’s are wont to mount hobby horses, and that of Royal finances ranks among the most emotive. But the Monarchy must not be allowed to become a source of political capital, and nor must it be dragged into the same ignoble row over expenses that MP’s have been. It is too precious, too cherished, and too valuable for that. 


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