Economist George Kerevan looks at the special role the royal family plays in controlling and exploiting Britain’s land.
What is the fundamental role of the British monarchy and with it the importance of the succession to the throne of Charles Windsor? The answer does not lie soley in the mechanics of the so-called constitutional monarchy. Rather, the Winsor family act as guarantors of the property rights of the landed aristocracy and its right to syphon off surplus value. Through the monarchy with its myriad family and social links to the British landed elite, the power of the landlord remains at the apex of the ruling class. The Windsors are about land and land is about political control.
According to a study by Forbes business magazine, the Windsors own assets of around $28 billion, mostly in land and associated properties. It is no accident that one of the first acts of Charles Windsor on ascending the throne was to pass over personal control of the so-called Duchy of Cornwall to his heir William, thus cementing the loyalty of his son in future family and dynastic battles. The Duchy of Cornwall sounds a quaint throwback but Cornish tin mining in the Middle Ages made the peninsula arguably the richest piece of real estate in Europe and so established the wealth of the royal family. Today’s Duchy is a massive 130,000-acre property portfolio valued at circa £1 billion. That’s roughly three times the entire land area of Glasgow.
Charles is and remains an aggressive property developer, not a passive shaker-of-hands or green environmentalist. Over the past decade, he expanded the number of professional property experts working for the Duchy of Cornwall, tasking them with expanding the asset value and rental income of the properties. The Duchy has long expanded beyond Cornwall. It owns the Oval cricket ground in London, extensive prime agricultural holdings, London office space, seaside vacation rentals, and supermarket depots. And the Duchy is only one part of the Windsor property empire.
Land and Rents Under Capitalism
Value is created by applying human labour power to the fruits of nature. But under capitalism, nearly a half of the value created through that labour power is expropriated by the bourgeoisie. In the UK, since the 2008 banking crisis, the share of wages in GDP has fallen from around 58 percent to around 54 per cent. This calculation includes high earnings of non-productive (non-value creating in Marxist terminology) employees, including bankers and senior managers. So, it is likely that the share of value going to the workers who create it is actually less than 50 percent.
However – and this is the crucial point – the value initially expropriated by the capitalists does not stay with them in its entirety. Some of the value is creamed off by the financial bourgeoisie through interest rate charges. And some is syphoned off by the landed class as rent. In the UK, where the landed and property class remains politically powerful, the share of GDP gobbled up in rents has doubled since the 1980s, to around 12 percent. The UK has the largest property investment market in Europe with circa £600 billion invested (2014 data) – fully 50 per cent more than in Germany, the next largest. Germany invests in industry; Britain’s ruling class invests in property.
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While new forms of landed property have emerged in recent decades – witness the expansion of the buy-to-rent sector – most land ownership is historic and heavily concentrated. Over half the land in the UK – the richest and most valuable part – is owned by the top 40,000 families. But the concentration of land ownership and wealth reaches its pinnacle with the 600 or so aristocratic families who dominate property and wield significant political influence in the UK, led by the Windsor clique.
A 2019 academic study by London South Bank University (LSBU) went a long way to unravelling the financial holding of the aristocracy by working through around one million published wills. These did not include the wills of the Windsor family and its close relationships, as the British courts have declared these secret since 1911 – another advantage of the monarchy. The LSBU study found that, on average, the UK’s 600 or so aristocratic tribes are as rich as ever they were in Victorian times, at the height of empire. More telling, the data shows that after a dramatic collapse in aristocratic fortunes in the aftermath of WW2 – with steep death duties and high taxes – the fortunes of the landed elite were reversed for the better in the Thatcher years. This continued under the Blair and Brown administrations, with the average wealth of aristocratic families doubling in the decade to 2007.
So what? The syphoning off of rents as a cost to capital in the UK is one major explanation for the low investment in manufacturing and research, and so of Britain’s endemic low productivity. The workers are exploited but the bourgeoisie also finds its ill-begotten profits are being eaten up by the landed gentry. As Marx long ago mused, given the parasitical nature of land rents, why have the British bourgeoisie not simply expropriated the feudal aristocracy?
Integration with Finance
This is where the biggest land-owning family comes in – the Windsors. Since the death of Elizabeth Windsor, we have been drowning in references to “continuity” as the rationale for a non-elected head of state. There is a profound truth in this assertion. But the reality is that the “continuity” of institutions protected by the hereditary monarchy concerns primarily the institution of landed property ownership and the right to extract rent. The Windsor monarchy shores up and mystifies the British aristocratic system. But that is only shorthand for protecting the ability of a hereditary clique to determine land values and rents. For continuity read acceptance of the right of a few hereditary landowners to cream off value created elsewhere.
The Windsors buttress their own influence via their links with the rest of the aristocracy – and vice versa. Consider young Hugh Grosvenor (31), the 7th Duke of Westminster, Britain’s richest aristocrat and worth a cool £11 billion. Hugh just happens to be a friend of William Windsor and godfather to Prince George, who stands to inherit the throne after Charles and William.
Which raises the obvious question, following Marx, as to why the bourgeoisie allow this to go on? Clearly, because they benefit from the stability provided to the whole economic and political system via the monarchy. But we might also note that the aristocracy have frequently used their growing wealth to forge deep political and economic links with finance capital and the City of London, binding themselves ever closer to ruling class interests.
Can anything upset this cosy arrangement? Elizabeth Windsor was not much interested in matters beyond horseracing. Charles Windsor is a different character. He has run his property empire with a degree of ruthlessness – witness the instant sacking of his personal staff, as he moved to take over Elizabeth’s household. In the coming economic crisis, Charles will continue to have an eye on property values and taxation. That is the true “continuity” provided by the Windsor monarchy. But such naked greed could demystify the Windsor family and open the path to its eventual demise.