John Oliver went in on the British monarchy on Last Week Tonight, as the royal family is “in transition” following the death of Queen Elizabeth II at age 96 in September. “In the UK, the argument was that in the wake of the Queen’s death, it just wasn’t the time for criticism of her or the monarchy in general. It would be impolite,” Oliver explained. “But it’s been two months since then, and Charles is king now.”
And while for many, the charm of the Queen was in her longevity and “her tendency towards silence – you never really knew what she thought about anything,” neither of those things are true about her son, Oliver argued.
Charles ascended the throne at the age of 73 after a lifetime in the limelight, a messy divorce and numerous public gaffes. “He doesn’t have the inscrutability of his mother, or enjoy her level of public affection, and his ascent to the throne comes as the UK is facing a cost of living crisis,” Oliver explained.
Which prompted him to ask what the point of the monarchy is, for both the UK and for countries around the world for whom the monarch remains a figurehead.
The job of the monarch, he explained, is to be the head of state, a symbolic position tasked with receiving incoming and outgoing ambassadors and heads of state, and to make state visits abroad. “Think of the royals as Mickey and Minnie at Disneyland – they’re not running the rides, but they’re a mascot of the whole operation, and people kinda like having their pictures taken with them,” said Oliver.
Royal defenders would say the ceremonial aspect is the point; the Royal Family’s website describes the sovereign as a “focus for national identity, unity and pride” which “gives a sense of stability and continuity”.
“But that comes at a price,” said Oliver, pointing to the £100m ($117m) paid by British taxpayers each year in the sovereign grant for upkeep of the royal family. Oliver pointed to “asterisks” on the sovereign grant, as the royal family has other sources of income: private wealth whose details are a closely guarded secret, and the duchy of Lancaster, a massive property portfolio containing land seized by the monarchy in the 13th century. (The portfolio paid the Queen $27m in the year before she died.) There’s also the Duchy of Cornwall, another billion-dollar real estate portfolio now in the hands of Prince William, which brought in $26m last year.
“The royal family’s wealth, unlike their gene pool, is massive,” said Oliver. The two duchies are exempt from corporation taxes, and Charles pays no inheritance tax, “and when you factor all of that in, it sure starts to feel like they’re costing a hell of a lot more than just a pound per person,” said Oliver.
Oliver was blunt in his feelings on the royal family: “They’re like a human appendix. We’ve long evolved past needing them and there’s a compelling case for their surgical removal.” But he acknowledged that he was in the minority for British people, as 67% felt that the monarchy should remain.
Their role abroad, however, is a more open question. Oliver briefly summarized the royal family’s role in the transatlantic slave trade, established under royal charter. “I do get that people shouldn’t be held personally responsible for whatever their ancestors did,” he said, “but trying to talk about the British role in the slave trade without talking about the monarchy is sorta like trying to talk about Jeffrey Epstein without talking about the monarchy. They are inextricably linked, however uncomfortable they might find that fact.”
He also reminded viewers of “one of the most brutal atrocities carried out by the British”: the crushing of the Mau Mau rebellion by the Kikuyu people of Kenya, which happened in the first years of Elizabeth’s reign. The Kenya Human Rights Commission estimates that the British executed, tortured or maimed 90,000 people during the crackdown, and detained 160,000 in barbed-wire camps.
“We don’t know what the Queen knew – what she was briefed on is kept secret, very conveniently – but we do know what was done in her name, by her government,” said Oliver. “If you’re the symbol of a country, you represent what it does.
“You can’t say you’re just a symbol and bear no responsibility for how the institutions that you are the head of behave,” he added, pointing to, among many examples, the Church of England’s role in Canada’s residential forced assimilation schools for Indigenous people.
The royal family, he continued, has “refused to reckon” with why many Commonwealth countries have either left (Barbados) or are considering it (Jamaica, Antigua and Barbuda, Belize). “Instead, they’ve continued working hard to be perceived as a mere symbol while never taking responsibility for what that symbol excused, all while ignoring calls for true apologies and reparations to those who suffered tremendously because of what was done in their name.”
“You don’t have to hate the royal family personally,” he continued. “I mean, Google ‘Prince Philip racism’ or ‘Prince Andrew everything’ and see where you land, but you don’t have to hate them. You don’t even have to think that the institution shouldn’t exist.
“But if it’s going to continue to, it is fair to expect significantly more from them, he concluded. “Because too often they hide behind the convenient shield of politeness and manners which frequently demands the silence of anyone who might criticize them or what they stand for.”
Oliver questioned whether his segment would even air on Sky TV in the UK, which had previously cut Oliver’s jokes about the Queen during the week after her death. “But if they do cut it out for being disrespectful, they should seriously think about why,” he said. “Why they, and everyone else, are working so hard not to offend a family whose name was branded into people’s skin” during the slave trade “and who sit atop a pile of stolen wealth wearing crowns adorned with other countries’ treasures.”