Forget Harmless Eccentricity, the Aristocracy Still Wields Enormous Unaccountable Power

Monarchy and aristocracy are often considered as a single entity by the British public, whether positively or negatively.  Yet they are two very different animals.  Aristocrats have a love-hate relationship with the monarchy. They hate it because it has historically been a rival for power, privilege and wealth.  In fact many aristocrats have been republicans and that remains so today, though their vision for a republic is slightly different to mine! Conversely, the aristocracy love monarchy as it takes the high profile flak and provides ‘top cover’ for their activities in return for a little bit of pomp and dressing up a few times a year.

Though not being a fan of the City A.M. publication, often finding its articles superficial, one feature published last week nevertheless demonstrated the point about the continuing power of aristocracy. Writing about the vast areas of London owned by a few very old families it stated:

This select group has several significant players. The Grosvenor Estate, owned by the Duke of Westminster, manages Mayfair and Belgravia; the Cadogan Estate, owned by the Earl Cadogan, has Chelsea; the Portman Estate, owned by Viscount Portman includes fashionable Chiltern Street north of Oxford Steet (sic); while the Howard de Walden Estate, owned by the Howard de Walden family, is its neighbour on nearby Marylebone High Street.

I blogged about the Duke of Westminster tax rouse on his Grosvenor Estate when considering the undemocratic nature of investment ptential in Britain. As might be imagined, the aristocrats have their own lackey supporters for this state of affairs who cite ‘long term stewardship’ and ‘tasteful development’ as justification. But let’s look more closely at this 21st Century version of feudalism.

Back in the 1860s newsagent W.H. Smith set up a shop in Sloane Square. In 2004 they complained about their treatment by the Cadogan Estate when their lease was terminated and they were told to leave the premises after 136 years. Meanwhile, elsewhere in Sloane Square the Oriel brasserie was a local exclusive restaurant, mostly famed for its high prices.  Following a meal he didn’t care for at the establishment Earl Cadogan summarily decided to close it down, despite protests from the locals.  The Independent reported the situation as follows:

An Old Etonian, Charles Cadogan said that he “didn’t like the food and the prices were too high”, adding: “I can tell you that we won’t be renewing their lease when it expires …. We are going to have a new development there.”

Autocratically trashing business without any accountability is one issue. Perhaps not many blog readers will shed a tear for simply one shop in a major chain or a restaurant for the wealthy. But aside from the principle of the matter there is also the distorting effect on local democracy, as brought into stark focus at Grenfell. In this Guardian article Anna Minton looked at local authority registers of hospitality which detail some of the interaction between politicians and these feudal relics. In particular she points to Nick Paget-Brown, the erstwhile leader of Kensington and Chelsea who resigned following the tragedy at Grenfell.  In just one week Paget-Brown

..had breakfast with the Grosvenor Estate, the global property empire worth £6.5bn, and lunch at Knightsbridge’s Carlton Tower Hotel. This was paid for by the Cadogan Estate, the second largest of the aristocratic estates (after Grosvenor), which owns 93 acres in Kensington, including Sloane Square and the King’s Road.

Maybe if Paget-Brown had spent less time with the wealthy in expensive restaurants and more time considering the needs of the poorer of his constituents the disaster may have been averted.

In Britain we need to recognize that the old aristocratic families are not some sort of harmless eccentric relic from the past but exert real unaccountable influence on our daily lives wherever you

Reform or ‘Revolutionary Acts’

In a short but hard-hitting recent post titled Our rotten state will be replaced, Richard Murphy advanced the thought that the economic impact of leaving the EU without a deal will be finally too great for many people to bear. Citing the example of Jacob Rees-Mogg he wrote:

The real opposition will come when people have simply had enough of the imposition upon them by a corrupt elite hanging on to power in an obviously illegitimate democracy that hands them authority in a way that society clearly does not want.

And:

…peaceful demonstration that makes clear that those who have thought themselves able to rule must give way to those with the publicly backed authority to do so will become too strong to resist.

Murphy goes on to fervently hope that the revolution will be peaceful.  I agree, but what I think he is getting at is not a revolution per se but  ‘revolutionary acts’. This is why.

It is popular on social media for people to call for a revolution. But as the comments on Murphy’s post point out, revolutions have a very low success rate when it comes to delivering a comprehensive lasting transfer of power and improvement in conditions for the majority. Revolutions which involve mass popular uprisings are bloody affairs, Syria being an example.  Although estimates vary it is likely that between 5% and 10% on the population was killed during the English (more correctly British) Civil Wats of the Seventeenth Century. That equates to between 3 and 6 million people in today’s terms. Alternatively, a revolution can come in the form of a coup enacted by a small powerful elite. But the chances of you or I benefitting are vanishingly small with a high risk of it resulting in a state which is tightly controlled and oppressive.  Finally there is the almost guaranteed counter-revolution which may come very quickly or many years later.  As examples look at the restoration of the English Monarchy while the American Constitution as sometimes regarded as a counter revolution which handed power back to a small elite following the egalitarian instincts of 1776..

So  revolution is often associated with violence or open warfare.  But a revolution means changing the way a country is governed. This implies we can consider ‘revolutionary acts’ as involving the transfer of power from one person or group of people to another larger and more inclusive group. In Britain today this would mean a transfer of away from those who have usurped it (a Government elected on a minority of the vote; powerful ‘too big to fail banks’, to take merely two examples) or inherited it (the aforementioned Rees-Moggs or the oft-overlooked British aristocracy) to genuinely accountable representatives.

I agree with Richard Murphy.  Iceland, along with many other examples in recent history clearly shows that peaceful revolutionary change is possible. But it must start soon. Remember that our system is not broken.  It is working exactly as intended. It simply never was set up to deliver real power to you or I!

Crown, not Crown; The Duke of Lancaster Is Not What He Seems!

DucyLancsThe Duchy of Lancaster is what is known as a Corporation Sole or a corporation with a single person as beneficiary. That person is the Duke of Lancaster, none other than Elizabeth Windsor; but gender is the least important ambiguity we shall encounter. The Duchy is also a County Palatine which means it can exercise powers normally reserved to the Government.  Herein lies the problem.

Where There’s No Will There’s a Way!

It is a fundamental of English law that all property must have an owner.  But occasionally it happens that no title can be established for property, for example when a person dies with no family and not having made a will. Then it is the duty of the Crown (Government) to dispose of the assets.  This normally means selling off the asset and passing the proceeds to the Treasury.  That is unless you die on land owned by the Duchy of Lancaster (or the Duchy of Cornwall, controlled by the Duke of Cornwall, Charles Windsor). Then your property becomes their property (known as Bona Vacantia). The Duchy’s own site describes it thus:

Whatever remains undistributed from a person’s estate is the property of The Queen in Right of Her Duchy. Gifts may be made, on the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster’s authority, to those who might reasonably have expected to benefit on a deceased’s death. 

The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster is someone I shall return to in due course! The proceeds of bona vacantia are then distributed to charity which sounds fine.  But remember that the Duchy of Cornwall has the same arrangement and Charles Windsor has been known to give money to his old school chums the exclusive Gordonstoun! Some charity!

Hedge Funds, Interest Swaps and Property Investment

I have blogged before about the disingenuous myth promoted by Buckingham Palace that Elizabeth Windsor is politically neutral. Most certainly this applies to the Duchy of Lancaster which feeds her personal wealth and is anything but neutral.  The public image of the Duchy is one of cosy tradition with picturesque images of such assets as castles, hillsides where smiling farmers tend their flocks and babbling brooks feeding placid lakes. But the reality is very different  and it is worth taking a look at just one aspect of the Duchy’s activities.  Along with an analysis of Hedge Funds and Interest Rate Swap dealings the 2016-17 Report and Accounts mentions:

The portfolio, acquired in September 2016 for £34.25m, comprises four distribution warehouses (Basingstoke, Harlow, Redditch, Alcester) and one industrial estate in Swindon. The Duchy of Lancaster has been steadily building its distribution warehouse network in recent years, acquiring Wardley Industrial Estate in Greater Manchester in 2015 and both Estuary Commerce Park in Speke, Liverpool and Units A and B at Walker Park, Blackburn in 2014.

Bear in mind that this is only one small part of a corporation with over £600 million of assets, But note that unlike a commercial investment and property company the Duchy is not subject to Corporation Tax. In an arrangement which is available to few other individuals Elizabeth Windsor is allowed to voluntarily pay (she has a ‘Memorandum of Understanding’ with the Treasury) income tax on her earnings from the Duchy, though how much she actually pays remains secret.  Moreover, it also means that changes in the laws governing warehouses and the employees are of direct interest to the Duchy and may affect its profits. Areas such as health and safety, customs, food storage regulation and planning permission are all relevant, to name but a few. Because of secrecy we are not allowed to discover whether these issues come up in conversation between Windsor and Prime Minister.

Throw in a Murky Chancellor, a spot of Tax Dodging and Secrecy!

The quasi public/private nature of the Duchy of Lancaster highlights much that is wrong with our system. The Duchy exists to provide a personal income for the Sovereign from which Elizabeth Windsor personally benefits.. Yet as a Palatine it takes on various rights and responsibilities of Government. For example, It has its own ‘Attorney General’  the law officer of ‘the Crown’

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