Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II was once at a state dinner, listening to the speeches, when she received an urgent message. Prince Charles was due to deliver a speech in St George’s Hall at Windsor Castle and the damned fuse had gone. Would Her Majesty, if it please her, kindly remind the footman where the right fuse box was to flick it back on? Not long afterwards, Windsor Castle caught fire when a hot spotlight lit up a curtain, and had to be substantially renovated.
No doubt the Queen was sure to request that the builders, while they were at it, move the fuse boxes so that it was easier for everyone to remember where they were. I was told about this little fuse box incident many years ago, but it could just as well happen today. And it’s precisely in order to avoid a fire or collapse at Buckingham Palace — and perhaps also to rationalise the fuse boxes — that the British parliament is now being asked to agree to a £369 million (Dh1.68 billion) increase in the sovereign grant over the next 10 years.
The money is needed, says the Master of the Queen’s Household, to avert a “potentially catastrophic building failure”. The usual misery brigade, led by some anti-monarchist group called “Republic”, is carping on about how unfair it is that taxpayers must pay for the basic maintenance of Britain’s most famous historic palace. But if Britain can’t find the cash for some new plumbing and rewiring to make sure its monarch isn’t burned to death in her sleep — or disturbed at state dinners — then Britons might as well give up now and call it a day on being a country, let alone a major power. I’ll admit that the bill sounds very high. It amounts to a near doubling of the current annual sovereign grant for a whole decade. But it’ll pay for the renovation of a building with 760 windows, 100 miles (161km) of cabling and 20 miles of heating pipes. In budget terms, it’s equivalent to about 0.005 per cent of British government’s annual spending. That seems a reasonable price tag for ensuring that Buckingham Palace isn’t left without heating or flooded by a backed-up loo during a state visit.
Fixing up the mess will probably require parliament to move out for years and cost £7 billion, which makes Buckingham Palace sound like a bargain. Britain is meant to be a country that prides itself on efficiency. Britain can run things; make sure things work. Except that its roads are gridlocked, its trains packed and its Queen is doing an emergency stint in charge of the nation’s fuse boxes. At least there’s one saving grace from Britain’s decades of penny-pinching, which is that it hasn’t managed to ruin all of its old buildings yet. The consequences of having too much money to spend can be nearly as bad as not having enough. Just look at the totally humdrum stainless steel kitchen Samantha Cameron installed in Downing Street, more suitable for a butcher’s shop than an official residence in a pre-Georgian terrace. The sad fact is that owning and maintaining old stuff costs money. It’s absurd that the country’s most precious palaces should ever have been allowed to deteriorate to their current state. The British Government and the Crown ought to draw up prudent plans for how they’ll maintain their estates in the future by putting money aside for massive renovations, rather than racking up enormous, unfunded bills.
None of that, however, means the country can duck the responsibility now. Britons are paying the price for decades of making do. These depressing, hyper-rationalist republican campaigners somehow imagine that if Britain kicked its longest-serving and best-loved Queen out of the palace and turned it all into a massive museum, it would somehow be better off. I suppose a longer season for visitors might bring in a bit more cash, but whoever manages the place still has to grapple with a decades-long backlog of lead pipes and clapped-out boilers. All Britons would have done is make Britain that little bit meaner, smaller and duller. To avoid that fate, a new set of fuse boxes is a price well worth paying.
— The Telegraph Group Limited, London, 2016
Juliet Samuel is a columnist.