Fact Check: Queen Not 'Down to £1M' as Sensationalist Headlines Suggest

During a visit to Washington, D.C. earlier this week, I was accosted several times by young, feisty American girls who were overly eager, after hearing my British accent, to take me to task over the recent reporting regarding Her Majesty The Queen's finances. 

"Queen down to her last £1m!" the mainstream media screamed, ignoring the fact that the original Public Accounts Committee hearing that led to these "revelations" was in October of last year. Goodness knows how anyone suddenly decided this was a news item.

Outlets from California to Moscow, from Tehran to Canberra all parroted the lazy line, implying that somehow, Britain's monarch was about to go broke.

Well I'm sorry to have to be the one to tell all you anti-monarchists out there: it simply isn't true.

I would have expected more from the aforementioned women who playfully screamed at me, "Your Queen is broke!" since these girls are often the ones rightly sporting "Don't believe the Liberal Media" bumper stickers. But it seems that their usually admirable American exceptionalism got the better of them. And so be it: I do love a bit of friendly banter between trans-Atlantic cousins. But it does go some way to proving that we should always be sceptical of things that don't seem to add up.

"How," the question should have been posed, "can Britain's monarch, more popular than ever, funded by the British taxpayer, and owner of more businesses and properties than you can shake a stick at, be going broke?"

"She can't be," is the simple answer.  

The British Royal Family receives a grant of around £31m ($51m) a year from the UK taxpayer. It can fluctuate annually, but more often than not it is accepted that their presence costs us all about £0.50, or $0.82 per person (by contrast, the U.S. President and his family costs Americans around $4.50 each a year).

This grant is added to the income the Royal Family generates through tourism, which is around £12m a year. So there you have around £43m accounted for, against an expenditure of £45m in 2012/13. In reality, with the decimal points all in place, the shortfall in that year was £2.3m, which comes from a special "Reserve Fund".

It is this Reserve Fund that has been used up over the past 12 financial years, though as Sir Alan Reid, Keeper of the Privy Purse and Treasurer to the Queen tried to tell a parliamentary committee last week, "The £35 million reserve that we had in 2001 was absolutely intended to be spent by the end of 2010."

Of course this means the Royal Family is up, considering that the money should have been gone by 2010. But this doesn't make for good headlines, does it? It's much easier to pretend that the Queen might soon have to get a temp job at Safeway or something. Not that Margaret Hodge (Lab), the Chair of Parliament's Public Accounts Committee did anything to set the record straight either. You can read the fascinating exchange in the transcript here, starting on page two.

And two other points have also not been made by the hundreds of media outlets pushing this "story." 

Firstly, the Queen is still one of the wealthiest heads of states in the world (no match for the Sultan of Brunei of course, but far better off than President Obama or indeed the King of Spain) with $450m in the bank and assets.

Secondly, the Royal Family is still a net contributor to Britain, despite what republicans (that's anti-monarchists, not the U.S. political partisans) have to say on the matter. While the top-end estimates price the monarchy at around $300m a year (after logistics and more are added to the taxpayer grant), Britain's tourism authority, VisitBritain, claims the monarchy returns $767 million to the nation's economy.

So beware before you next imbibe of a sensationalist headline, such as "Queen goes bust" or "Obama is a good president": extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

Mind you, without all that dodgy reporting, I may have had no reason to converse with the rather attractive American girl in the Hawk and Dove that night. Oh well, swings and roundabouts, eh?

N.B. In the interest of full disclosure, I noticed halfway through writing this fact check that NPR has also done one. Who would have thought it? Decent journalism from NPR! 


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