The 'other' Queen
As the world watches the rituals, mourning and unspooling of ceremonies surrounding Queen Elizabeth’s demise, little is known about the role of the monarchy and its contribution to the United Kingdom. With the Late Queen doing the job for 70 long years with immeasurable dedication, to say the Royal Family does nothing would be very far from the truth
It was a bright, sunny morning in the Mullaghmore Peninsula, County Sligo, on the northwest coast of Ireland in August of 1979. 'The Troubles', the ongoing battle between the Irish Republican Army (IRA), who were fighting for the independence of Northern Ireland from the United Kingdom, and the military and police of the UK were far away. Rarely were there any acts of violence in the Republic of Ireland, most of it being contained within Northern Ireland and the mainland United Kingdom.
A family of six, along with a 15-year-old lad, took their 30 ft boat out for a sail around the harbour area, enjoying the fair weather conditions at the tail end of the summer. The boy was a crewmate, being taught how to handle a boat by the senior member of the family. Barely a few 100 metres at sea, an explosion ripped the boat apart. An 83-year-old woman, a 14-year-old boy and the 15-year-old crewman all died as a result. The head of the family, even though he was 79, somehow survived the initial explosion and was pulled out of the water by a fisherman, but he too died shortly after.
The IRA publicly claimed responsibility for the explosion. Their target was the head of the family. In years to come, documents would reveal that their target had been advocating for the independence of Northern Ireland, the IRA had killed someone who was on their side, albeit not a supporter of their violence. A heartbreaking twist of fate, indeed.
The assassinated man was Louis Mountbatten, the last Governor General of India.
Decades later, President Bill Clinton and Prime Minister Tony Blair finally brought 'The Troubles' to an end in what is known as 'The Good Friday Agreement', wherein the IRA would stop all violence, surrender their weapons, merge with their political wing – Sinn Féin – and take part in peaceful and democratic processes. The UK would, in turn, gradually devolve power to a provisional government of Northern Ireland. The leader of the IRA, 'General' Martin McGuinness, erstwhile head of one of the most effective and devastating terrorist organisations the world had ever seen, was voted into public office and was appointed as the Education Minister.
In this role, he would get a chance to meet Queen Elizabeth II; the Head of State of a country McGuinness had been bombing, maiming and killing, and had even come very close to killing one of Her Majesty's Prime Ministers not once but twice – Margaret Thatcher. PM Thatcher survived both by sheer luck; once due to her being in a cast iron bathtub that took the brunt of the explosive force while she was in a hotel in Brighton, southern UK and the other was a mortar attack on 10 Downing Street that narrowly missed wiping out the entire UK Cabinet, and only failed because the chalk markings for the mortar attack teams could not be seen clearly as it had snowed. The meeting was very cordial, light-hearted and professional. A sense of irony hung in the air; Mountbatten was the Queen's uncle and godfather to her eldest son and now King, Charles. When McGuinness asked the Queen how she was, her reply was sharp "Well, I'm still alive".
As the world watches the rituals, mourning and ceremonies surrounding the passing away of Queen Elizabeth II, little is known about what the Monarch does, what role they play and what their contribution to the UK is. To say the Royal Family does nothing and has no job would be very far from the truth.
The Queen's husband, Prince Philip, founded the 'Duke of Edinburgh Award' – a programme of outdoor activities for children between 15 and 18 years that would give them a qualification equivalent to a General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE), all funded by donations and free for children. Since its founding in 1956, it has grown to 144 countries and has helped over five lakh children.
Charles, now King, founded 'The Prince's Trust' – a charity to help 11–30-year-olds who are failing at school or in life and are at risk of being excluded from society and turning into criminals. The charity aims to get them trained and qualified in vocational skills and either get them jobs or set them up as entrepreneurs. Since its establishment in 1976, it has helped an average of 60,000 people per year and set up over 90,000 entrepreneurs across the globe. In just 2019-2020, it is estimated that people helped by the charity contributed £1.2 billion toward the UK economy.
The Queen herself had been the head, or Patron, of over 600 such charities across the world. Her mere appearance at a charity or corporate event triggered the latter to donate generously to the former. As of 2012, one estimate suggested that she alone was responsible for £2.3 billion in donations to charities. The Royal Family are Patrons of 2,415 charities in the UK and around 3,000 in total across the world. The Queen's Platinum Jubilee celebrations raised £1.2 million for her charities.
The Royal Family, as a business entity, is a force to reckon with. They have multiple sources of income – the UK government pays them through the 'Sovereign Grant', which averages between £80-90 million a year; this works out to a cost per citizen of approximately £5 or Rs 500 per year (in Indian parlance). Against this income is the 'Privy Purse' wherein the government deducts costs like the maintenance of palaces, staff salaries, security costs and so forth. Apart from this, the family are vast landowners with an income per year of around £50 million.
The returns are formidable; in 2017, an estimated £1.7 billion boost to the economy was solely due to the Royal family. This is mainly in the form of tourism; people want to see the pomp & ceremony, the palaces and recent shows like 'The Crown' have only increased the interest. Prince Andrew (albeit now disgraced), Prince Edward, Princess Anne and others have always been roving ambassadors for British businesses. Andrew is known to have a favourite hotel in Kolkata, one that is close to the zoo.
The Queen was also the head of a very rowdy family, also known as 'The Firm'. She has handled relentless scandals throughout her term – her husband had a history of dalliances, including an early crush on one of the ill-fated Romanov girls; later going on to provide his own DNA to help identify their remains. Philip's mother spent five years in various mental institutions in Europe, having been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. The most famous of the scandals was Charles and Diana, both regularly unfaithful to each other, both generating cringe-worthy headlines on an almost daily basis. Charles' brother Andrew caused his fair share of embarrassments for 'The Firm', as did his wife Sarah – who famously had a photograph of her splashed across the front page of tabloid media; sucking on the toe of a businessman. The Queen's sisters and other minor Royals also had their personal escapades on the front pages.
Diana's death was a seminal moment for the beleaguered Queen. Conspiracy theories were rife, the public was outraged and hurt, and their love for a Royal outcast was evident and undeniable. Andrew would once again cause an embarrassment, this time bordering on having to go to jail due to his association with the paedophile billionaire Jeffrey Epstein, through whom he was alleged to have an inappropriate relationship with an underage girl. Harry turned out to be troublesome too with photos of him partying naked causing a next-generation ruckus. Marrying a mixed-race American divorcee didn't help much but 'The Firm' backed him, only for his wife to bad mouth the family and then engineer the separation of the newlyweds from the rest of the family and indeed the UK.
Gan-Gan, as she is called by her grandchildren, maintained stoic dignity, and carefully and assiduously navigated the family through whatever maelstrom was thrown at them or, as was the case quite often, thrown by and at themselves. Andrew was banished from all Royal duties, and he hasn't been seen in public and only resurfaced to attend to his dying mother. Charles was rehabilitated, now a respectable and much-loved figure while Camilla has grown out of the shadow of Diana and is widely accepted with the latter's ghosts all but vanishing. Harry and Meghan are out on their own, disassociated from the family while William and Kate have maintained their dignity thus far.
It was a few centuries ago that a British Monarch lost the Civil War and was beheaded by the people. The Army betrayed him and sided with the people, leading to the founding of the world's oldest democracy. This betrayal haunts the Army till today – while the UK has the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force, the third wing is just the British Army. After the death of Diana, the rising anti-colonialism and anti-establishment movements, maintaining a rowdy Royal family at all was a remarkable achievement, quietly doing away with calls for the disbandment of the Royals and having a Republic instead.
Charles 3rd will have his work cut out and to avoid the fate of his namesake ancestor who lost his head to the people, Charles 1st, he may want to adopt his mother's mantra – "never complain, never explain".