Tax Break

John Fisher, international tax consultant

Archive for the tag “Queen”

The Windsor Saga

Who by car crash? Who by suicide? Who by execution?

One of the perennial challenges of the writers of successful soap operas is finding original ways to write actors, who have had enough, out of the script. They can’t all be sent off to Canada, and the public sometimes doesn’t like what it gets. When, broadcast on Christmas Day 2012,  Downton Abbey’s Matthew Crawley died in a car crash on the way back from visiting his wife and new-born son, the outrage was almost tangible. One nutter even tweeted: ‘Why oh why Lord are you testing me…let alone on the day your son was born?’.

‘It’s the BBC, they want us to do a series.’

The British Royal Family has, of course, been a real-life soap opera at least since the Queen let the cameras into Buckingham Palace a half century ago. Writing people out of the script is a lot more complicated than Downton Abbey. Tragically, they have had the car crash and the sex scandal(s), while one of their number (plus household) is about to head for Canada. Lacking the imagination of Downton creator Julian Fellowes, others just get sidelined or – like old underground trains – are retired from public service.

The latest ‘Rexit’, that of Prince Harry and his family, appears to be attracting attention, less because of the human element, and more because of the budget. That isn’t what writers want to see – it detracts from the fairy tale script, and places the whole event in the grubbiness of the real world.

The British press is full of that bombastic and pompously self-righteous term: ‘The British Taxpayer’. How are they going to live? How much is it going to cost ‘us’? While that last question may be appropriate for Leninists, Trotskyites, and Corbynistas, it is not the ticket for a country whose electorate just returned a Conservative government with an 80 seat majority.

He also surrendered America

The Queen is not a pauper surviving on handouts from the State. Monarchs across the centuries amassed huge fortunes from – inter alia – rape, pillage and murder that gave them direct or indirect control over the means of production and human capital. Nice people all. On assuming the throne in 1760, George III surrendered his income from the ‘Crown Estate’ (basically, his property) in favor of an annual payment from Parliament (the Civil List). The Crown Estate was effectively placed into trust for the State, and the Treasury received the income. That state of affairs lasted for over 250 years until, 7 years ago, the Civil List was replaced by the Sovereign Grant which set the payment to the monarch at 15% of the total net revenues of the Crown Estate (temporarily increased to 25%).  Add to this the Royal Family’s  private wealth from the Duchies of Lancaster and Cornwall, as well as the occasional  flutter on the horses, and the Queen is not short of a pound or two.

Thus, as the right to own private assets is still embodied in British law, and as the Sovereign Grant – as successor to the Civil List – is a contractual agreement to pay royalties at a fixed percentage  in perpetuity for the surrender of all control of the Crown Estate by George III, why is it anybody’s business how the wealthy Queen finances her grandson’s welfare? Were the monarchy to be dissolved today in anything other than a communist-style revolution, the royals would be entitled to the two duchies (as at present) and a financial settlement in respect of their rights to income from the Crown Estate. They wouldn’t be living on a council estate as depicted by Adrian Mole creator Sue Townsend in ‘The Queen and I’.

The British Taxpayer can’t even feel indignant over the income tax and capital gains tax position of the monarch anymore. While a king or queen cannot pay tax (it is, after all, HER MAJESTY’s Revenue and Customs), the Queen and Prince Charles have been paying voluntary amounts since 1993 that are supposedly designed to shadow the position of the rest of us.

There is one gaping exception. One of the subplots in Downton Abbey is the recurring issue of Death Duties, today known as Inheritance Tax. It serves as the reason great family after great family is forced to sell their stately home or significant parts of their estate. Under the Queen’s arrangement with her Revenue and Customs, everything she leaves to her successor is not liable to Inheritance Tax (as well as everything inherited from her mum). While it might be argued that the properties included in the Crown Estate (such as Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle) do not belong to her, Sandringham and Balmoral definitely do (her father even had to buy Balmoral off his abdicating brother), not to mention the assets held by the Duchies.

A parody of a soap opera

So, if the press wants to get on its soap box, lay off the Sussexes – that’s a family affair – and concentrate on the death taxes. Of course, were the position to change tomorrow, Her Majesty could transfer all her assets to Charles immediately, and would only have to live 7 years to avoid Inheritance Tax. At 100, she would be a year younger than her mother when she died. Long live the Queen!

Teaching Mrs Merkel German

How many times in one reign does a monarch have to listen to Tom Jones singing Delilah?

Nostalgia ruled for most of last week. While the British indulged in a House of Windsor love fest, the world delighted in snippets of the Queen over her sixty year reign. It was Prince Charles, the King-in-Waiting, who stated the obvious at the Buckingham Palace Doorstep Concert noting that for many people this was the third jubilee they were enjoying along with the Queen (who, frankly, did not by that stage look like she was enjoying anything very much).

My memory leapfrogged over the Golden Jubilee and sprinted straight for the 1977 Silver Jubilee. That was a very different occasion – the generation which, back then, we called middle-aged had lived through the Second World War and brought an old camaraderie to the festivities, as opposed to today’s middle-aged who brought Stevie Wonder, Tom Jones and Paul McCartney.

Maybe it was just the glasses, Jim. Or maybe not

But, Silver Jubilees aside, I was reminded that 1977 was an annus horribilis (as, indeed, was much of the decade but my Latin does not stretch that far). Britain was governed by a minority Labour Government which, in turn, was governed by the Trade Unions who kept bringing the country to its knees.  James Callaghan, the hapless Prime Minister being fattened  for the slaughter by Mrs Thatcher, had swept into No 10 a year earlier with the slogan “Jim Won’t Fix It”. This was a play on the title of a popular TV show and branded him immediately as totally incompetent.

 Meanwhile, across the pond the Americans put a Georgian peanut farmer into the White House who, apart from claiming to have been attacked by killer rabbits, let his team spread compost over US diplomacy. At one diplomatic function Chief of Staff Hamilton Jordan (another Georgian) was reported to have told the Egyptian Ambassador’s wife that he had always wanted to see the pyramids, while fixing his gaze somewhere well south of her eyes.

Jack and Bobby Kennedy. Or maybe not

From the economic viewpoint  the world was down the tubes. The collapse of the Bretton Woods exchange rate system  early in the decade followed by the Arab Oil Crisis had led to rampant inflation – or to be more specific – stagflation. This state of affairs was the nightmare of every adherent of the  school of economic thought that had ruled since the 1930s – it broke the rules of Keynesianism. Inflation together with slow growth and steadily high unemployment was not to be found in Lord Keynes’s song book.

It was no wonder, therefore, that a radically different breed of economist managed to insinuate itself into the frontal lobes of the world’s politicians and the world was presented with Monetarism in the UK and Reaganomics in the US while the French elected the rabid socialist Francois Mitterand just to prove a point. That should have been the end of history, but it wasn’t. Things started going visibly pear-shaped towards the end of the century and neo-keynesianism ( a potpourri of everything that had come before) has been on the ascendant among economists, if not politicians, ever since.

Sadly, since the financial crisis hit in 2008 all we have heard from European leaders (until the French played their usual “driving the wrong way down a one way street card’  in electing a socialist president) is austerity, austerity, austerity. The Eurozone has to collectively tighten its financial belt, balance its budget (well, almost) and keep within very low inflation targets.  Bung up taxation, slash public spending, pay off your loans. And, meanwhile, let the continent  burn.

Strange. I always thought Paul was born around the same time as Beethoven

Leading this bloody crusade is none other than Europe’s Supreme Leader – Angela Merkel. Locked into a  mindset of classical economics and simple housekeeping Frau Merkel, along with all the other European big chiefs  other than M Hollande who has yet to prove that he is not a left wing nutjob,  is missing something fundamental. And that something was observed by a German – Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel.

Frau Merkel should ask the Queen about Hegel’s “Zeitgeist” . She should ask her about her 60 years of regular meetings with her prime ministers from Winston Churchill to the current young boy. The Queen would doubtless tell her that the spirit of the times  has changed.  Beethoven could not have written the Ode to Joy in 1967 London and Paul McCartney would have had trouble with Yesterday in 1827 Vienna. So why is there an assumption among political leaders that, because something did not work in 1977 it will not work in 2012 OR that something that did work  in 1982 will work in 2012?

Did I say at any cost? Maybe not

Back in the 1970’s inflation had got out of control  and – let’s make no mistake – reasonably stable prices are a sine qua non (Latin again) for a stable economy. Stagflation was a reality. Unions were at their most powerful. People’s expectations were at the bottom of the pit. It was critical to bring order to the money markets and bring the unions in line, at whatever the short-term cost, to facilitate a basis for nations to move on. It was left to  Thatcher to tame the Coalminers and Reagan the air traffic controllers.

The European crisis of the last few years is against a very different historical backdrop. Inflation and the unions are not a major threat. The financial crisis is precisely that and not a crisis of economic fundamentals (with the exception of Greece which will soon be sent on its way to Hades). It is the handling of the crisis that threatens to upset the applecart.

Any fool can see that, by everyone getting their house in order at the same time demand just deflates (Paul Krugman has pointed out that  you cannot use the analogy of a spendthrift household that needs to tighten its belt when referring to an entire country because the spendthrift household can rely on demand being created by responsible households as opposed to the entire country where demand just disappears).

Should I buy ingredients for another cake or pay off the mortgage?

Krugman, like Keynes, has no problem with  balancing budgets when the economy is booming. However, when the economy is in recession it is time for increased government spending. It is clear that, whilst in the long-run governments may be highly inefficient participants in the economy, in the short run they will spend much more freely than private households concerned about the future. This supports the contention that taxes should not  be reduced in a recession if that means less government spending. Alongside all this there should be quantitative easing (basically, central banks injecting cash into the economy) and increased targets for inflation.  Balanced Budgets would  still be sought but over a much longer period. Within the Eurozone they will need more banking unity and some form of joint eurobonds to protect weaker economies that cannot devalue their currency to increase competition.

Angela, go with the flow!

It is not an exaggeration to state that the next few months are going to be  critical for the future of the European Union. If Mrs Merkel prefers not to battle with the stark prose of her fellow German, Mr Hegel, she might prefer that nice Mr Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (not in Latin):

There is a tide in the affairs of men.
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat,
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.

God save the queen from taxes!

She is the one in the top right-hand corner

The Queen (there is only one “Queen”) was often lampooned in the  1980s TV series “Spitting Image” . It starred a bunch of incredibly elastic, outrageously exaggerated latex puppets. My favourite sketch had the Queen at her desk, surrounded by her totally dysfunctional latex family, writing Christmas cards to foreign countries. Completing the last card  she announced “Right, I’ll just put the stamps on” and proceeded to turn her latex head sideways and thwack it down onto a giant inkpad on the desk followed by a further wallop of the head onto an envelope, producing a passable impression of her profile.

Truth be told, there is nothing strange about this. The Royal Mail is Her Majesty’s postal service and it would be absurd for her to pay for delivery.  And before I get placed in the stocks by members of the loony left – sorry lads, this is not about “primus inter pares”; HER prime minister is “first among equals”. The Queen is not one of us. She is not part of our democratic tradition. She is  the Mothership. 

“She is driving home. They can’t book her”

Forget petty things like the Royal Mail – the Queen is even above the law. Put simply, the courts belong to her.  If she fancies, she can go through the Green Channel at Heathrow Airport carrying 2 bottles of whisky and 400 fags – and nobody can stop her. If she is wandering around Windsor Tescos and decides to pocket a  six-pack of Heineken and a packet of  smoky bacon crisps, the police officer called to the scene of the crime will just unctuously genuflect  while waiting for an unmarked car to whizz round from the castle and bundle her in. If she has one over the eight on Christmas Eve and takes the Landrover out for a drunken winding tour of Sandringham (Christmas might be Balmoral) the local constabulary sirens will remain impotently silent.

In fairness this all sounds extremely strange to 21st century western man (or woman). But, if it wasn’t that way she would not be the Queen but just another Reality TV star.  I imagine she does not even have a passport. Nowadays, we are all stuck with that ubiquitous burgundy creation of the EU, but the wording on the inside cover of the British version still reads: “Her Britannic Majesty’s Secretary of State  requests and requires in the name of Her Majesty…to allow the bearer… to pass freely without let or hindrance…” What would she have had on her passport? “Don’t mess with me. I’m the Queen”?

The British don’t like their queens third-hand (or with bulbous noses)

Of course, it is not quite as extreme as I have described. Suspension of the British (or previously English) Constitution has always been an option. When King Richard III got a bit too trigger happy (at least according to Shakespeare) he ended up wandering around a battlefield offering his kingdom for a horse before being conveniently slain by his successor. And then there was that poor chap Charles I (for the benefit of non-native English speakers the “I” is pronounced as it is spelt – “The First”)  who, on a cold day in January 1649 was left without a head upon which to wear his crown and replaced for a few years by a boring republic. Indeed, if Her Majesty was feeling a bit gung-ho she need only look at the fate of her grandfather’s first cousin (not to mention his poor family) who copped it good and proper in the Russian Revolution. Meanwhile, minor misdemeanours like sharing the royal prerogative with married women (for clarity, this one refers to kings) could be dealt with by the government proposing early retirement, as was the case with the Queen’s uncle Edward VIII (pronounced Duke of Windsor, spit, spit).

However, there is one gaping hole in the consistency of the system. Since 1993, the Queen has paid income tax and capital gains tax. The Queen cannot be liable to  tax. Taxes are collected by Her Majesty’s (that’s her folks!) Revenue and Customs. And before some bright spark mentions (I really wish people WOULD add comments below) that, as sleight of hand, she pays the tax and takes it back in government funding – let’s get the record straight.

Kings and Queens used to be self-financing. For historic reasons – normally murder, rape and pillage – successive generations of the monarchy have succeeded in accumulating vast fortunes. By the time James II fled England in the Glorious Revolution, Parliament had had enough and his successors (the husband and wife team of William and Mary) were the first monarchs to have the Crown’s peacetime revenue fixed by Parliament with a sum to defray the costs of running the Royal Family and Civil Government (civil service, judges, ambassadors etc.) – the Civil List.

Since 1789 America has had 44 presidents and Britain 9 monarchs. The Watergate break-in occurring a few weeks before Edward VIII’s death, there has been 1 abdication apiece

When George III (the one that lost America) came to the throne in 1760 it was decided that he should surrender the income from the Crown Estate (with the exception of the Duchies of Lancaster, Cornwall and other bits and pieces) for the period of his reign in return for an updated Civil List that no longer included responsibility for civil government. And that has been  the situation ever since. (As an aside, it is interesting to note that in the 252 years since Georgy-Porgy bit the bullet,  3 monarchs have covered almost 75% (George, Victoria and Elizabeth) of the period.)

But to celebrate 250 years of the glorious Civil List system, the government announced its abolition in 2010. With effect from 2013, in place of the Civil List and specific grants for certain expenditures – there will be a new single Sovereign Support Grant. While this sounds like a welfare payment (“We will give this old age pensioner an extra  million quid for Christmas to cover her heating costs”),  it is indeed a radical new system in that it is based on a percentage – initially 15% – of the revenue from the Crown Estate. Anti-monarchists should note that if the Monarchy was abolished peacefully the Queen would presumably get all her income back from the Crown Estate. So, apart from the loss of  tourist revenue that would accompany a republic, the Treasury would be down just based  on the simple arithmetic.

So, why on earth is she paying taxes? In 1993, following a major fire at Windsor Castle for which the government had to foot the bill,  the Queen “announced” that she would voluntarily pay tax on her private income (not the Crown Estate that , going forward, is going to be taxed at an effective rate of 85% – high even by Francois Hollande standards). This was, effectively, to silence the mob – ie the British public who could not comprehend why they should pay for the repairs.

The best way to describe this policy is populist and potty. The Queen cannot pay taxes for one simple reason – because the Queen cannot pay taxes. If they want to tap her for a few bob why not just reduce her new Support Grant by a percentage of her private income (which just happened to be at the current personal tax rate)? That would be a legitimate sleight of hand and the sort of creative accounting some accountants used to like in the good old days  before Arthur Andersen got its comeuppance.

Sixty years of devoted service

This weekend marks the official celebration of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. As a constitutional monarch she reigns but does not rule. Perhaps one of her most  endearing qualities is that she does not exploit her privilege. Here is a true story never told in print before. Several years ago an old acquaintance, turning a London corner in his Jaguar, was inadvertently caught up in a Royal Cavalcade. Worse, he rear-ended the Queen’s car. Now, in every civilised country when you rear-end somebody it is your fault and, if it happens to be the Head of State you are probably going to wish you were not born. In the event, an aide got out of the Rolls, strolled over to the Jag, presented the driver with a card and told him to bring the bill for his repairs to the tradesmen’s entrance at Buckingham Palace where he would be (and was)  fully reimbursed. End of story. That is class. God save the Queen!

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