The Royal Family is a factory of human misery

How I hate the British fascination with royalty. I will not watch That Interview. But the Royal family is a critical link in my country’s constitution and we can’t ignore it entirely, much as we might want to. Both sides in this spat are making the case for the family’s release from its constitutional role; the grubby business of elections and politics can’t be worse than this.

For somebody that affects uninterest in the royals, I have a guilty secret. I immensely enjoyed the Netflix series The Crown. I only started to watch last autumn, but I have now seen all four series. Before the last series I was interested to read the criticism of it in the press, from royal experts. This is a class of people who make my flesh creep, as they try to exploit the social cachet of knowing the royals. Mostly this criticism was pretty weak – a lot of trivial things (but none that made as annoyed as the use of a Crusader III tank in Suez in 1956; this vehicle was obsolete in 1943). More serious were the conflations and exaggerations in the drama, and events that never happened. These often annoy me too (machine-guns at the Curragh, etc) , and I’m very wary of the defence that the dramas are following a higher historical truth. But to my surprise, I found that I felt that the makers of the series had a point in this case. There was another category of criticism, the knowing “they wouldn’t do that” about some or other misbehaviour, such as the mistreatment of the Thatchers when they visited Balmoral. And yet the drama made it clear that this arose from a gulf of misunderstanding, not intention, and it is all too credible.

The strength of The Crown is that it has a clear and consistent theme, and that theme is clearly true. The institution of the monarchy overpowers the individuals in the Royal Family, and crushes all those who attempt to assert their individuality. Although the drama starts with the last days of George VI, its real beginning is the Abdication Crisis of 1936, when Edward VIII had tried to rebel against the system. This casts a heavy shadow over the first two of the series. The drama shows how the Queen herself came to terms with not being in control, and how pretty much everybody else in the family was crushed and became very unhappy. It focuses on Prince Philip, Princess Margaret, Prince Charles and Princess Diana. But we know that the unhappiness doesn’t end there. Funnily enough the series doesn’t make a big deal out of the tabloid press, the big focus of Prince Harry’s anger – but they point to the contradictions of the institution itself.

The fourth series of the Crown ends in the early 1990s. But we all know that the same drama has been continuing at the same pace in the quarter-century since. And That Interview is only the latest twist. What to make of it? The most explosive claim, about remarks over the colour of Harry and Meghan’s baby is quite hard to take seriously without more context. Was is overt racism, or was somebody being a twit? We may never know – but sensitivities differ across the Atlantic. The broader claim is more serious though: that much of the British public struggled to accept an interracial marriage, which was stoked by the British press. This was part of the toxic atmosphere that the couple felt they had to escape; Prince Harry feels that the Royal Family machine ran for cover rather than fight their corner. The Crown suggests that this was always so, but that this is out of necessity. Another serious charge was that Meghan was not offered help, or help that she felt she could use, when she complained of suicidal thoughts. This echoes, consciously perhaps, of the Palace’s neglect of Princess Diana. In that case the usual secret sources suggested that The Crown was being unfair and one-sided, and that Diana was pretty difficult to deal with. That defence reveals an incomprehension of the problem; the television portrayal was all too convincing. In Meghan’s case the story is likely to be more complicated – but establishing the truth feels like an intrusion.

But the big picture is clear; it is another variation on a theme that has been played out many times. A younger member of the Royal Family feels they can freshen things up. The ‘Firm” feels that this is intolerable and will undermine the monarchy, and crushes the troublemaker. The interesting thing is that The Firm could well be right: the moderniser may do much more harm than good, given the ambiguous nature of the institution, being an upholder of democratic values while being deeply undemocratic itself.

Is it worth it? The British Monarchy does a reasonable job of being the ceremonial head of state. It has its weaknesses. In 2019 the Queen could do nothing to stop several months of Boris Johnson controlling the considerable executive powers of the state with no parliamentary or democratic mandate – a constitutional and democratic outrage. It was the Supreme Court, not the Monarch, that stopped the most outrageous element of this: the attempt to prorogue parliament.

But this constitutional arrangement comes at a huge human cost to the family at the centre of it. By and large they don’t choose to be members. If we had an elected head of state, they at least would have chosen it as a career. The Monarchy has turned the Royal Family into a factory of human misery. There are better ways. Alas reform is unlikely to be a political priority. The misery of one family is not worth the time and trouble.

Rishi Sunak shows a sure touch with 2021 Budget

Yesterday Rishi Sunak, the British Chancellor of the Exchequer (though that job title belongs to no other country so far as I know), showed why is considered to be the country’s top performing minister after Boris Johnson, the Prime Minister. It was Budget Day; he got most things right, while putting off a lot of decisions for another day.

The central issue for the government is, of course, dealing with the pandemic. His decision was to continue with a whole raft of fiscal support measures, such as the furlough scheme, until the end of September. This is well after the vaccine programme is supposed to have brought society back to normal, sort of. This shows that Mr Sunak has learned from his mistakes. Last year he was too eager to hurry things back to normal and withdraw fiscal support. Like his boss, he seems to have effortlessly risen above the mistakes of 2020.

But how is this to be paid for? Government finance does not work like household finance, and especially not for a medium-sized developed country with its own currency, like the UK. Mr Sunak has simply added the costs to the national debt without any serious plans to repay it. After dealing with short-term support for the stricken economy, Mr Sunak’s next priority is to show how he will stabilise government finances in the new, shrunken, normal by reducing the budget deficit. He did this by freezing tax allowances and raising the rate of corporation tax (from 2023). The former will allow the government to benefit disproportionately from incomes increasing through inflation. This allows the Conservatives to stick to their pledge not to raise personal tax rates, nowithstanding the hurricane that has hit the economy.

A lot is missing from this plan. Public spending plans have not been changed once the emergency subsides, though it isn’t hard to see many ways in which the stress on public services will rise; some are painting this as strategic choice for a return to austerity, but surely it is too early to say for sure. The long-promised solution to social care funding did not materialise. The temporary increase in Universal Credit, which many want to make permanent, has been prolonged only until 30 September. There were various gimmicks under the heading of “growth strategy”, i.e. measures to encourage business investment, but nothing major. Tax advisers will indeed get an economic boost, especially from his 130% capital allowance scheme for “productive” investment. So the Budget was not the long-term strategic rethink many had been hoping for. The big question is whether the government has such a rethink in mind at all, or whether it is saving it for later. Saving it for later would be perfectly sensible in the current fast-changing environment. A lot of criticism is focused on these missing items, however. Another line of attack, notably from the Liberal Democrats, points to gaps in the emergency support, especially for smaller businesses. This is valid, but it is a bit late for a government rethink.

The leaves two bigger questions: is it sensible to put off dealing with the expanded national debt? And is it sensible to raise the rate of Corporation Tax? My answer to both is “yes”. The limits to government finance are very tricky to assess. On the one extreme we have countries like Argentina, constantly overdoing it and stuck in a world of inflation and debt crisis; on the other we have Japan, whose mountainous public debt and frlarge budget deficits are simply shrugged off. A large national debt needs to be refinanced over time, as the bonds that finance it mature. For now this is cheap and there are plenty of buyers. But that can change; interest rates can rise; investors can be scared off. There’s no sign of this at the moment, but this debt will be with us for a long time. Can’t the Bank of England take on the debt that the markets can’t digest anyway? Yes, but this is a bad idea if inflation is in the system, especially wage inflation. But some wage inflation is good – it is the process by which living standards increase, especially in poorer households. Another problem is if the country requires a lot of foreign currency (the position Argentina got itself into); this is a risk if the country has a large current account deficit. But there are no warning lights flashing on either inflation or currency needs. If that changes the government might need to raise taxes further – but not yet.

And as for Corporation Tax, the government’s reversal of strategy is spectacular. Starting with the Coalition with the Lib Dems in 2010, the rate has been steadily reduced to 19%; the plan now is to bring it up to 25%. This rise is widely portrayed as an attack on business. But that isn’t the right way to look at it. As a tax on profits, rather than on sales, employment or property occupation, it is a very efficient tax. The incentives to run a business efficiently remain unchanged by the rate. It is better regarded as a tax on capital. It is certainly one of the things that companies look at when deciding where to locate a business internationally – but it is still quite competitive at 25%, and basing attractiveness to business investment on tax rates is an invitation to footloose capital, not secure growth. Capital is already cheap, and the story of this century has been the rise of rewards on capital compared to labour. This looks like a good place a tax hike. There are problems with the tax, especially in its treatment of foreign trade and borrowing, but the rate is surely not too high.

Politically, though, this Budget is part of a general revival of the Conservatives’ fortunes. Mr Johnson and Mr Sunak are often painted as rivals, and doubtless they are, but so far this year they are working well together, promoting a narrative of a sure-footed, cautious but fiscally generous recovery from the pandemic. Labour, who had opposed the rise in Corporation Tax, are floundering.

The pendulum swings rapidly in politics, but Rishi Sunak is showing a sure touch. Later this year, as his bluff is called on public spending, it will be interesting to see what he and the rest of the government do.