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Wizards, Whimsy, and Why We Should Keep Funding the Windsors

At the end of this year, a revered public figure will leave office for the first time in decades. No, it’s not Angela Merkel—it’s Ian Brackenbury Channell, the Wizard of New Zealand. Since 1998, the city council of Christchurch has paid Channell the equivalent of more than $10,000 annually to perform “acts of wizardry and other wizard-like services” in the city. In the letter commissioning him to officially become the Wizard of New Zealand, former Prime Minister Mike Moore noted that he was “concerned that [his] wizardry is not officially at the disposal of the entire nation.” Channell saw his role as a whimsical one, but his recent offensive comments have caused the city council to make this December’s paycheck his very last.

“Every day the world gets more serious,” remarked Channell, “so fun is the most powerful thing in the world right now.” While impacting a vastly different audience, the Wizard of New Zealand’s role is much like the Queen of England’s. Like a wizard, there is something unattainable and therefore fantastical about being a royal since you can’t prepare to be a Windsor as you would an astronaut or Olympian. Royals are now merely figureheads in the majority of the world’s monarchies, but royal fascination has not dwindled even as monarchs’ power has. As it has lost its political authority over the last centuries, the British royal family can gradually dissociate from its dark imperialist past and move towards a less political future. Indeed, nowadays royalty is at the heart of much of our imagination. Take the rave for shows like “The Crown” and the popularity of princess costumes at Halloween as examples. Troublingly, though, calls to end funding for or even outright abolish the British monarchy are growing, buoyed by diminishing support for the monarchy from younger generations. Worse yet, the royals’ popularity may be in great jeopardy in the coming years when the incredibly well-liked Queen Elizabeth eventually ceases to be the family’s figurehead. In a world riddled with hardship, it is imperative for the United Kingdom to continue funding the royal family as a source of whimsy and fantasy.

The funding mechanisms for the royal family are far more nuanced than many might imagine. Interestingly, the Windsors no longer own the vast majority of the castles and palaces that give them their wealth. These properties—dubbed “The Crown Estate”—have been managed by the British treasury since 1760. Instead, the royals receive a payment every year called the Sovereign Grant, equivalent to 15 percent (temporarily 25 percent to fund the refurbishment of Buckingham Palace) of the Crown Estate’s profits over the previous year. The Sovereign Grant typically sustains most of the everyday features of the royal family: palace upkeep, employee payrolls, and utilities. The royal family also accumulates smaller amounts of wealth through comparatively miniscule portfolios they own, like the Duchy of Lancaster, which funds much of the extended royal family, and the Balmoral and Sandringham Estates, which the Queen maintains personally. All in all, though, individuals from the royal family are millionaires, not billionaires. While that distinction may seem meaningless to most, there’s a considerable difference between financing those two sums from a government funding perspective. Furthermore, developing a better understanding of just how much the royal family has helped to cross reference them against other wealthy people—readers might not expect that both former US Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and the current governor of Illinois J.B. Pritzker are each worth more than twice as much as the Queen. 

Understanding the structure by which the royal family is funded is central to dispelling the economic arguments against it. Many arguments made against funding the royal family include the estimated per-capita cost to the taxpayer—falling around 1.23 British pounds in 2019-2020, equivalent to about $1.65. That sum (which falls to just $0.99 setting aside renovations) is relatively miniscule compared to the thousands that most Britons pay in taxes every year. Such a cost-benefit analysis neglects the profound monetary benefits that the Crown Estate contributes to the UK. The 75-85 percent of surplus revenue generated by the Crown Estate every year goes directly into the country’s treasury, so the Crown Estate actually pays UK citizens back at least three times as much as the Sovereign Grant costs. And, critically, the Crown Estate only generates so much revenue from property value and tourism because of the properties’ affiliation with the royal family. The royal family is not an economic leech on Great Britain’s side; rather, it is a valuable asset to the welfare of the British people.

Despite its economic benefits for the UK, the royal family occupies a much more important role fulfilling fantasies for people around the world, particularly Americans. In 2015, former President Barack Obama remarked to Prince Charles that, “[t]he American people are quite fond of the royal family…they like them much better than their own politicians.” Research points to a variety of psychological factors explaining this captivation. For some, “the British royal family represents a real-life fantasy;” for others, the royals touch a “fundamentally human desire…to pay attention to people we both admire and understand.” One way or another, our fascination with the royal family hinges on what Professor Michael Marsden terms “secular divinity”—our obsession with unattainable perfectibility paired with our tendency towards familiar structures. The royal family fulfills an important role for many as near-divine yet accessible figures, true fairy tales come to life. 

Some detractors may simply be unable to support this government-funded fantasy. Indeed, there are many other worthy uses of the Sovereign Grant’s annual 82.4 million British pounds (climate investments and state pensions, to start). However, that revenue only exists because the Windsors’ popularity sustains the Crown Portfolio’s value—a royal reality that inherently costs a pretty penny to uphold. Furthermore, nations spend money on projects that boost morale and enable inspiration all the time; just this year, the UK pledged an extra 300 million pounds for its live entertainment industry as part of a 486 million pound investment in its arts sector. Like both of those investments, funding the royal family creates jobs, builds wealth and prestige for Britain, and, most importantly, nurtures our cravings for fantasy.

Marsden may have described the royal family as “optimistic symbols of human perfectibility,” but the Windsors are leaps and bounds from perfect. Prince Harry and Princess Meghan’s interview with Oprah earlier this year is just the latest reminder of the royal family’s long history with racism, from the slave trade to global colonialism. Curiously enough, it is this aspect of the royal family that bears one last pivot to the Wizard of New Zealand. Despite dismissing Channell for his sexist comments, Christchurch has yet to contract his emerging protégé to become the next Wizard. Channell’s sexism warrants attention, perhaps even termination, but not the elimination of his post. The royal family has an obligation to grapple with and atone for its past, and the public has a duty to demand change from the royal family. But while we steer them in the right direction, let’s not destroy the magic and fantasy they create. After all, even queens and wizards are only human.