By Wendy Williams
THE British Royal Family is once again in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons.
Thanks to documents newly released under the Freedom of Information Act, it has emerged that back in 2004 the British Queen asked her ministers for a poverty handout to help heat her palaces.
Her request was rejected because it was feared it would be a public relations disaster and the royal household was instead reminded that the energy-saving grants were designed to help families on low incomes.
The fact she needed to be alerted to the potential for a public relations faux pas suggests she little understands public opinion.
And to make matters worse the news comes, just two weeks after it emerged that Britain has the most expensive royal family in Europe.
A comparative study of annual expenditure by Europe’s constitutional monarchies puts the Windsor’s at the top of the list, with 48.6m euros, followed by the Dutch on 39.4m euros, the Norwegians on 27.9m euros and the Belgians on 13.7m euros.
The Spanish royal household budget in 2011 will be lower than 2010
Meanwhile the Spanish royals, with a string of new sign of-the-times austerity measures firmly in place, have been praised for being one of the cheapest.
Incredibly, the Spanish monarchy came just a few quid behind the tiny royal family of Luxembourg, with a superbudget
spend of just 8.9 million euros.
This was done by some impressive austerity measures including the king and queen shortening their annual summer break in Mallorca by nearly a week.
They also spent less days on their yacht this year, entertained fewer guests and their 140 members of staff took a pay cut along with the rest of the nation’s civil servants.
So modern-thinking are the royals said to have become, that Queen Sofia even spent a few days test-driving a new prototype green car, while on her holidays.
Even better, the Zarzuela Palace – where the Spanish King and Queen have been based since their marriage in 1962 – has announced that the household budget for 2011 will be even lower than this year making them the cheapest royals in Europe.
Already the difference between the monarchies is striking; aside from the recent addition of a newsreader (and the daughter of a taxi driver) to the Spanish ‘firm’, future king Felipe was the first member of the Spanish royal family ever to take part in a
public protest, following the Madrid bombings in 2004.
Add to this, the image of Spain’s Queen Sofia hopping on a Ryanair flight to visit her brother in London recently.
And compare that to reports that Queen Elizabeth spent half a million euros to get a private plane to the West Indies. Is it any wonder the Spanish Royal Family are said to be more popular?
But is this really the case, and does it all just come down to value for money?
Certainly the British queen’s finances have long been controversial, with frequent debates about whether Britain’s head of state — whose role is almost exclusively ceremonial — costs too much.
But when you divide the total cost between all the taxpayers in the UK it comes to only 62p a year, which most citizens
don’t begrudge paying for the novelty alone of having her face on a stamp.
And of course, despite the negative press that the British royal family frequently get, they are by no means universally
Nor are the Spanish royals, who mostly get good press, universally popular.
But there is a marked difference in the relationship between the two monarchies and their citizens.
This however may be less a question of finance and more inexorably linked with their history… and an ability to relate
to the general public.
As James Hewitt, the Marbella-based former lover of the nation’s favourite princess Lady Diana, explains to the Olive Press: “There are long, well established historical reasons for this. Spanish society is very different with a small middle class, a huge mass of working class people and a small aristocracy.”
The manager of restaurant Polo House, adds: “In thechanged a lot more, which puts the Royals under increasing scrutiny. Here, traditionally people all knew their place and respect was at an utmost. Change is coming much more slowly.”
Love it or hate it, the fact remains that Britain has had a monarchy almost without interruption for nearly 1,000 years (with the exception of the small period between 1649 and 1660), making it older than the establishment of Parliament by more or less two centuries.
And although the powers they retain have been significantly reduced over the years their presence is often seen as a stabilising force, a constant in a sea of change, Britain’s biggest tradition.
Of course by the same token many believe the monarchy is out of date.
Just last week, controversial author Salman Rushdie, 63, who somewhat ironically recently accepted a knighthood, told the Sunday Times that he believes the monarchy to be archaic.
He said: “The monarchy and its traditions are archaic…stupid… a British oddity”.
The same however cannot be said as easily of the Spanish monarchy that was not all that long ago, ousted and reasserted to power.
According to former Guardian journalist John Hooper, author of The New Spaniards, the experience of exile that the present king and queen share, has impacted how they approach their roles.
He explains: “Both the king and queen were given a lesson in their early years that no member of the British Royal Family received—that, for a monarch, the penalty for failing to judge correctly the mood of his or her country, can be exile and debilitating irrelevance.”
He is, of course, refering to the overthrow of the monarchy in 1931, signalling the beginning of the short-lived Second Republic that lasted until the Republican defeat in the Spanish Civil War in 1939.
The royal family was forced into exile and it was not until 1947 before current king Juan Carlos, aged nine, set foot in Madrid again to attend school.
However the Royal Family was not to be given any power…
Indeed, it was not until 1969, that General Franco – by then in complete control of the country – even deigned to designate the young Prince as his successor.
The dictator had already decided that he would be a more suitable replacement than his exiled father, Don Juan.
So, following Franco’s death, Juan Carlos – then aged 37 – swore allegiance to the principles of his apparent mentor and was proclaimed king on November 22, 1975.
But in an incredible volteface, in his first message to the nation, he expressed the basic ideas of his reign – to dismantle the Francoist state, restore democracy and become the king of all Spaniards.
It caused an enormous outpouring of respect for the new King and he has been extremely popular every since.
His credentials as a populist royal were further boosted when he helped to save Spain’s infant democracy in 1981 during an attempted military coup.
“There’s a deep-rooted feeling of gratitude for the king’s role in the transition to democracy,” explains Charles Powell, a historian and royal biographer, adding, “Polls show that he is the individual to whom democratisation is most closely attributed, and the sense of gratitude cuts across class and ideological lines.”
So while anti-monarchists in Britain argue that the very idea of an unelected monarch undermines democracy, in Spain, the king is seen as a man of the people.
In this sense, cutting back on spending sends out a clear message of empathy, particularly during the third year of ‘la crisis’.
As all of Spain is struggling to cope with the recession, the Royal Household are cleverly also tightening their belts.
According to Herman Matthijs, a professor at the VUB University in Belgium, the decision to slim back this year and next is a vital step.
He said: “I can’t see that it will cause the Spanish King too much hardship to survive on a little bit less but it will send a positive message to the people of Spain that he is making sacrifices along with everyone else.”
The British royal family is slowly cultivating itself an image as a more ‘fun’ monarchy
Certainly for an outsider looking in, it would appear that when problems arise, the Spanish royals are quick to support their citizens and when society celebrates, so do they.
A prime example of this was seen when the royal family, donned red and yellow and eagerly welcomed the victorious World Cup team home, with King Juan Carlos even hugging several of the team members. His son and wife Leticia were seen at the
games jumping up and down like regular fans.
Meeting the Queen in Britain always seems a far more formal affair.
And, the Spanish royals, who have achieved an almost celebrity status, are frequently seen to be inviting the public into their lives, posing for relaxed family photos, such as the one of the two little princesses on their first day at school, free from any allusions of grandeur.
Now however, perhaps in a bid to compete with their Spanish counterparts, the British royal family seem to be trying the same tact.
In an attempt to move with the times, they have decided to share their family photos on the social networking site
Flickr, adding to their already large online presence via You-Tube and Twitter.
And thanks in no small part to the young Princes, William and Harry, the British royal family is slowly cultivating itself
an image as a more ‘fun’ monarchy.
But what does the future hold for both sets of royals?
Certainly the European monarchy is a dying breed.
In 1914, only four countries in Europe were not ruled by a monarch, but today there are only ten monarchies left.
Interestingly, a 2006 Mori poll predicted their downfall, with 53 per cent believing that the monarchy in Britain would no longer exist in 100 years.
In a similar poll conducted in 2009 by the Guardian 56 per cent of people said we should abolish the monarchy to make the current political system more accountable.
Meanwhile, in Spain, the king maintains an average approval rating of over 70 per cent, consistently outperforming elected political leaders.
But here too, as many as 22 per cent of people believe that a republic would be the better form of government.
Moreover the intense loyalty the nation may feel towards their king is not necessarily transferable to his son, with many of the king’s supporters claiming to be ‘juancarlistas’ rather than monarchists.
“The biggest challenge ahead is the succession,” explains Powell. “Juan Carlos will always remain popular because of his vital role in the past, but the question is how can he transfer some of that capital to Prince Felipe?”
The king’s popularity was cemented in May 2007, when he was voted the greatest Spaniard of all time, in a poll run by Antenna 3.
But Felipe, much like Britain’s Prince Charles, has sought in vain to make his mark remaining in the shadow of his more popular parent.
However, while it is true there is no great love for Prince Charles; William and Harry have attracted much more attention.
It could be that they are the ones to breathe new life into the declining institution.
Of course, some of the more die hard monarchists are scandalised that William would even consider marrying university sweetheart Kate Middleton, who with no aristocratic connection is a mere commoner with aspirations of grandeur (it is irrelevant that the family lives a privileged upper-middle-class lifestyle and that she attended the elite public school Marlborough College).
But the general public on the whole seem to approve of the match. And if the monarchy has any chance of surviving it will have to move with the times.
This is exactly what happened in Spain, when six years ago Prince Felipe married television journalist Letizia Ortiz Rocasolano.
Generally welcomed with open arms, despite the fact she had previously been married and divorced, it shows just how prepared the Spanish royals are to embrace modern times.
She was seen to represent the modern woman, a role model for young girls and someone the public could relate to.
But arguably, therein lies part of the difference between the relationship between the British and Spanish monarchies.
In Britain we don’t really want our royals to be one of us; they represent a past heritage, a legacy of a once great empire and their allure lies in them being separate from us.
Although the cost to the taxpayers is arguably excessive, the reasons for and against the monarchy in Britain are primarily ideological and centre on its antiquated nature as both a positive and negative attribute.
By contrast, in Spain the modern day royals have forged a celebrity status and appear inherently likeable and approachable.
As Prince Felipe told Hola magazine recently: “I like to think of myself as being no different to anyone else, with my failures, frustrations, joys, worries, everything… a King should not lose his perception of what it is like to be someone normal.”
Viva the Spanish monarchy!
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