Sun, Jul 22, 2007 - Page 9 News List

Windows are opening on the British royal family's wealth


on a recent morning, royal courtiers, brows furrowed, escorted a reporter to the top of Buckingham Palace to point out some troubling disrepair: cracks scarring part of the palace's yellow, chalky facade, where a shoebox-sized chunk of stone had toppled from the roof, narrowly missing Princess Anne's car, and myriad tiles needing replacement. Alas, the House of Windsor, just like any other family down the street, is also struggling with a leaky roof.

At an earlier news conference, Queen Elizabeth II's accountant, Sir Alan Reid, Keeper of the Privy Purse, pleaded with the British government for an extra ?1 million (US$2 million) a year to help fix the Windsors' roof.

"The annual cost per person in the country of funding the head of state amounts to 62 pence," he said, somewhat apologetically. "There is good evidence that we continue to pursue value for money in running the royal household."

In the modern pantheon of billion-dollar fortunes, the queen falls well behind modern Midases like Bill Gates. In Britain, members of an entrepreneurial elite like Richard Branson, J.K. Rowling and the steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal have all amassed purses weightier than hers. (The Sunday Times "Rich List," for example, estimates Rowling's fortune at about US$1.1 billion, while it values the queen's at a mere US$650 million).

Even so, few fortunes generate the kind of fascination as that of the Windsors. While other royal families in northern Europe came out of two world wars as more stripped-down, commonplace figures who rode bicycles in the streets and readily mingled in daily affairs, the British monarchy retained most of its distance, pomp and pageantry.

"What is different about Britain, its particular accident, is that it was a winner in the wars and, unlike other European states, it kept its monarchy and kept its residual state of glory and stature, this carapace of splendor," said Linda Colley, a history professor at Princeton. "They have not yet become neutered."

But in the post-Diana era, the Windsors are clearly more fretful of being neutered not only politically -- through the queen, at least, they still wield a bit of constitutional influence in Britain -- but possibly financially as well. As their relationship has been tested with the British public, alternately contentious and fawning, the Windsors have felt compelled to offer historically unheard-of peeks at the financial and entrepreneurial underpinnings of their fortune.

Each year for the last seven, the family's financial advisers have held a cozy briefing with a small clutch of reporters at Buckingham Palace, all in the name of financial transparency. The briefing includes details about how they spend their annual government allowance for public duties and upkeep of the royal residences, as well as some details about their personal wealth. The goal of the affair is to make the Windsors more accessible -- and, observers say, to allow them to better protect their fortune. Longtime critics of royal privilege, however, argue that greater transparency has also led many people to wonder exactly how much of the family's fortune is truly its own.

What is actually theirs?

"There is a lot of blurring of the edges about what is actually theirs," said Ian Davidson, a Labor member of parliament. "What does the concept of holding in trust for the nation actually mean? There does not seem to be a register of the works they own. They have modernized, but they are still not as open and as transparent as we would wish. They don't pay tax in the way they should."

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