‘Brexit’ Threatens Subsidies for U.K.’s Landed Gentry, and Queen

‘Brexit’ Threatens Subsidies for U.K.’s Landed Gentry, and Queen

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At a time when even the Conservatives under Prime Minister Theresa May have declared war on the growing wealth inequality and the inequities of capitalism, there is a rising clamor to stop, or at least curb, the handouts to the titled, and entitled.

“It’s completely indefensible,” said Chris Bryant, an opposition Labour Party lawmaker, former minister and author of the coming “Entitled, a Critical History of the British Aristocracy.”

“The only way we have been able to defend it in the past is that it is a European Union system,” he said. The British government has, Mr. Bryant added, “for years argued that we spend too much on agriculture, and the logical consequence of that would be not to have such high subsidies.”

Recipients include a cast of the rich and famous, with money finding its way to another prominent member of the royal family via the Duchy of Cornwall, an estate established by Edward III in 1337. Its revenues go to Prince Charles, the Duke of Cornwall, an heir to the throne. In 2016, the duchy received more than $130,000 in European Union subsidies.

Prominent Recipients of E.U. Farm Aid

Here are some landowners in Britain who received European Union farm subsidies in 2016, with the amount in pounds.

Other wealthy beneficiaries have included the Duke of Westminster, who died last year; the Duke of Northumberland; Khalid Abdullah al-Saud, owner of the Juddmonte racing stables; Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum of Dubai, who owns the Godolphin stables; and James Dyson, the pro-Brexit businessman and inventor known for his vacuums, who also owns a farming business.

The government has promised to retain current subsidies until 2022, but dropped strong hints that thereafter, the rich might have to pay more of their own way.

In July, Michael Gove, the secretary of state for food, the environment and rural affairs, criticized a European farm subsidy system that “rewards size of landholding ahead of good environmental practice, and all too often puts resources in the hands of the already wealthy rather than into the common good of our shared natural environment.”

Decisions have yet to be made, but ministers are studying ways to shift cash from farmers with large estates to those struggling with smaller holdings.

Buckingham Palace said the subsidies for Sandringham also included payments for a separate estate, Balmoral, in Scotland, but it would not comment on what might happen after Brexit. In a statement, it said that “subsidies are open to all farmers; and like others with agricultural interests, some subsidies are received on the queen’s private estates. Figures are in the public domain as a matter of record.”

But at Sandringham recently, where the public can walk through the queen’s house, view prized portraits and heirlooms — including shotguns and other antique weaponry — visitors seemed less than convinced that the cash was needed.

Linda Thorpe, a health administrator, argued that while the Sandringham farm supported livelihoods, farmers generally got too much subsidy. Her husband, Colin Thorpe, was more blunt, saying: “Money always goes to money. That will never change.”

Kevin Kilkenny, who trains apprentices in Hull, in northeast England, added: “It’s the old boys’ club. It is all the rich boys in the rich club looking after each other.”

Brussels has tried several times to limit the maximum amount that farmers can claim, and individual governments are already entitled to impose curbs on big payments.

Prince Charles, center, in Cornwall, England. He gets European Union subsidies via the Duchy of Cornwall, an estate established by Edward III in 1337.

Credit
Chris Jackson/Getty Images

But such initiatives have often clashed with Britain’s national interest. As a big net contributor to the European Union, it believed it got a raw deal from Europe’s agricultural policy because Britain has less farmland than, for example, neighboring France. Yet, of the subsidy that does flow to Britain, a significant proportion goes to owners of bigger parcels of land, who form a relatively large part of the nation’s farmers.

The European Union has been scaling back its agricultural policy and trying to reward better environmental practices. Its defenders argue that farm subsidies help provide food security while sustaining the economies of remote rural communities that have few alternative sources of income.

But Dieter Helm, an economist at Oxford University who specializes in energy, utilities and the environment, argues that rewarding people for owning land is “a terrible policy.” Though he opposes Brexit, he argues that “when we leave the European Union, the one shining opportunity is that we don’t have to be involved in this.”

Professor Helm says that the British government will either devote less money to farm subsidies over all or distribute the funds differently, and that there will be a ceiling on subsidy grants to individual claimants.

“There is enormous pressure, rightly, to stop subsidizing the large intensive farms of the lowlands,” he said. “There is a natural evolution away from paying people who have several thousand acres and toward the smaller farms, which tend to be in the uplands. It’s a no-brainer.”

Some critics counter that cutting subsidies would put British farmers at a disadvantage, vis-à-vis their continental competitors, and that large landowners may break up their holdings into smaller plots of land to get around curbs on big beneficiaries.

Professor Helm argues that tariffs could be applied to food imports if British farmers cannot compete, and that splitting up holdings to keep subsidies could be treated like tax evasion.

As for Queen Elizabeth, David McClure, the author of “Royal Legacy,” a book on the monarchy’s finances, argues that even though Sandringham has historically struggled to make a profit, the queen’s finances are solid enough to survive a loss of the subsidies.

“She’s not going to be pawning the family silver,” Mr. McClure said.

Before last year’s British referendum on quitting the European Union, The Sun newspaper claimed that the queen supported Brexit. Buckingham Palace denied it, and a media standards watchdog later described the article’s headline as misleading.

Either way, royal courtiers have woken up to some consequences of the Brexit vote. The latest annual report submitted by the Duchy of Cornwall said that Brexit had “caused some uncertainty,” noting that planning had become harder because “the circumstances around many decisions are bound to change.”

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