Opinion: Royal ties that strain ethos of social care

Community Care’s feature on the royal family and their involvement in more than 1,700 organisations got me thinking (“Crowning achievements”, 3 November). It stated that many charities seek association with a royal because “having such a figurehead is to put hands in pockets and bums on seats”.

No doubt some royals do take a genuine interest in and do promote charities. Yet I also reckon that the close identification with the unelected monarchy is at odds with some of the values and practices implicit in social welfare. It seems inconsistent that the royal family be used to attract funds from others when their own enormous wealth could solve the material shortages of a multitude of citizens. If the charities want a more even spread of resources, they could campaign for a redistribution of some of the royal fortunes.

In 2003, Clarence House was refurbished at a cost of 4.5m to the public as a residence for Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles. This in a country where many poor people, in order to redecorate their small homes, have to apply for a social fund loan which is minutely examined by officials and which, if granted, is repaid by deductions from their already meagre incomes.

This disparity of treatment conflicts with any notions of social fairness yet the charities do not seem to question it.

Richard Wilkinson, professor of social epidemiology, shows that inequality of wealth and income, not just poverty, is Britain’s major social problem.(1) Those at the bottom suffer what he calls psychosocial processes which make them feel inferior, failures, powerless. Over a long period, these feelings cause apathy, withdrawal, depression and anger. In turn, their health is undermined, their motivation is dulled and they may exhibit antisocial behaviour.

Clearly, the royal family are numbered with those who contribute to material inequality. As Tony Benn explains, they are at the apex of a social structure which is graded by differences in social status. He says of the monarchy that its “full range of honours effectively preserves a feudal class system which keeps everyone in their place”.(2) Little wonder that those at the bottom of the heap suffer materially and socially. Those charity leaders who vie to win the titles and gongs that are part of royal patronage contribute to Britain’s status-ridden system of inequality.

This year, the National Audit Office disclosed that Prince Andrew spent 325,000 of taxpayers’ money to hire planes in order to play golf and attend activities. No serious consideration was given to cheaper forms of travel. Ian Davidson MP said: “If the minor royals travelled alongside ordinary people they might understand their subjects’ concerns a little better.”

Davidson highlights a key issue: are out-of-touch privileged royals the best people to be patrons? Far better, in my view, if patrons were chosen from those who use charities. After all, the same charities are often the ones which claim to believe that their users should have more control.

It is wrong, in my view, if members of the royal family have several huge residences in a society where more than 500,000 people are homeless or in inadequate accommodation.Yet how can charities in this field criticise them if the same royals are their patrons? No doubt they will answer that the royals bring them status and money. In short, prestige and dosh come before social justice.

Wilkinson reasons that the good society must be based on a liberty which comes from dismantling pompous social differences and on an equality, which entails the abolition of huge material differences. I hope that the large charities will not reinforce the system which upholds these divisions.

(1) R Wilkinson, The Impact of Inequality, Routledge, 2005
(2) T Benn, “Keeping us in our place”, The Guardian, 24 April 2004

Bob Holman is an author and voluntary neighbourhood worker in Glasgow

More from Community Care

Comments are closed.