Backbencher wants Queen Elizabeth to pay taxes

July 05, 1991|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,London Bureau of The Sun

LONDON -- Is Simon Hughes a panting republican zealot out to deep-six the queen of England or just a humble politician trying to further constitutional reform?

It is a question of the moment here, and opinions depend on how one regards the British monarchy from which Americans celebrated their independence yesterday.

Mr. Hughes is a Liberal-Democratic member of Parliament who represents the London constituency of Southwark and Bermondsey, and earlier this week he put a bill into Parliament that would require the queen to pay income taxes, which she does not now do.

Mr. Hughes' proposal is not expected to prosper, even though polls indicate that a majority of the people of this island nation think their queen should pay a fair share of taxes. A poll published in the Independent newspaper in February revealed that 79 percent of the people favored taxing the monarch.

More may feel that way today, for the question has lodged itself high on the list of popular public concerns. And it was not only Mr. Hughes who put it there.

The issue has been all over the papers, on television and is a prime topic on the talk shows.

The notion of taxing the queen is not novel, although according to the House of Commons Library records, no proposal similar to Mr. Hughes' has been advanced since at least before 1980.

It is not that people here were unaware that the queen did not pay taxes -- neither on her income, inheritance nor capital gains. Nearly everyone thought their monarchs never paid taxes. That was believed to be the eternal order of things, and in this history-drenched land, the order of things is important. Precedence rules.

But as it turns out, it has only been the order of things for a little more than 50 years. Monarchs have paid up, going all the way back to Queen Victoria, who by the time she departed the royal precincts had shelled out about half a million pounds to her governments' tax collectors.

In fact, Victoria's son King Edward VII paid his taxes. So did George V. It was George VI, father of the current Queen Elizabeth II, who came to the throne in 1938 after his brother Edward gave it up for a Baltimore gal, who managed to get the crown exempted from the income tax.

No one knows how he did it. Rather, no one who might know has been willing to say how he did it.

The revelation of this information, Mr. Hughes agreed Wednesday, changed the public's perception and lent impetus to his initiative, which he said was motivated by a desire to create a monarchy "more appropriate for the age we live in." He also said his constituents have been complaining to him that the queen does not pay her fair share.

The revised history was made public by Phillip Hall, author of a new book titled "Royal Fortune," due out in the fall. Mr. Hall propagated this information in a television program June 24 and thereby revived interest in the question that has yet to abate.

"People know the queen does not pay tax," Mr. Hall said in an interview. "What is not known is that they used to pay. It has been well and truly forgotten that they used to pay tax on their private income."

Mr. Hall, in addition to being an author on royal affairs, is a lecturer at a college of continuing education. He will not reveal its name or location "because I don't want to be pestered by a lot of press."

So far, no one has come forth to refute his claim.

Just how wealthy is the queen of England? How much would be gained should she have to pay a share along with the rest of her subjects?

The actual wealth of the royal family is a closely held secret, so one cannot determine her tax liability. There is no public list of the real estate she owns, nor her holdings in stocks, horses, etc. Royal wills are not public. Some of the wealth is made up of gifts received over the years from foreign leaders, such as jewels from India, gold swords, bejeweled snuff boxes, all the Ali Baba stuff.

Gifts to the British sovereign, no matter their value, are for her to dispose of as she wishes, unlike gifts received by the president of the United States, which revert to the state.

Estimates of the queen's total wealth range from $2 billion to $11.5 billion. She is a financial heavyweight.

In addition to the income deriving from her private wealth -- which is the only target of Mr. Hughes' bill -- the queen receives an annual allotment of $14 million from the monarchy, an increase of $3.5 million over last year. This allotment is called the civil list.

Mr. Hughes introduced his bill under what is known as the 10-minute rule, a mechanism that allows a backbencher to raise a subject for debate that has very little prospect for success. It permitted Mr. Hughes, who otherwise is not considered quixotic, to speak on the subject for 10 minutes.

The Conservative government is not supporting any proposal to tax the queen, nor is the Labor Party. The feeling seems to be that it is a non-issue in high politics, if not on the street.

The great fear among the queen's advisers is that, should the royal fortune be opened even partially to the predacious agents of the Inland Revenue Service, it would lead to a general sacking of the monarch's fortune, threatening the stability of the institution.

If the monarchy gives anything back to the people of Britain, it is a sense of stability. So far the political class, and the people they represent, have not gone sour on the exchange.

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