It’s been mere days since the midterm elections and the country doesn’t even yet know which party will control the House of Representatives, so understandably John Oliver and his Last Week Tonight team didn’t tackle the elections in their main story — but Oliver did start the show by acknowledging Democrats’ surprisingly not-awful showing. He also managed viewers’ expectations.
“The prospect of a President DeSantis is just one of the worrying things that came underneath all of the good news on Tuesday,” Oliver said. “There was a chance the Republicans will recapture the House, and if they do they’ll be able to jam up Biden for the next two years with stunts like holding the whole country hostage by refusing to raise the debt ceiling, and, I don’t know, launching an investigation into Biden’s Peleton ride history.”
The night’s main story concerned the British monarchy, or as Oliver described it, “the best thing to happen to white actors since literally everything else.” The Queen has been dead for a couple of months; Charles, who turns 75 on Monday, is now king; and the UK is facing a cost-of-living crisis even worse than America’s. So Oliver figured it was a good time to ask a pretty simple question: What is the point of the (very expensive) monarchy?
In literal terms, the British monarch is the symbolic head of state; they receive visiting dignitaries and heads of state from other countries, they make official overseas visits themselves — perhaps most notably to the current and former countries and protectorates in the British Commonwealth — and they do more mundane things like visit UK factories and send UK citizens birthday cards on their 100th birthdays.
“Think of the royals as Mickey and Minnie at Disneyland,” Oliver said. “They’re not running the rides, but they’re a mascot for the whole operation and people kinda like having their pictures taken with them.”
The British government gives the royal family about £100 million a year — that works out to a little over a pound per Brit — as part of the annual Sovereign Grant meant to aid the family in performing its duties and buying cravats and fancy hats or whatever. Supporters of the family argue that they generate about £500 million a year in tourism, which is a pretty darn good return on investment, but Oliver pointed out that the £500 million figure is very much disputed; after all, tourists still flock to the Palace of Versailles even though Louis XIV’s layabout descendants don’t live there.
The family also makes money in other ways. The Duchy of Lancaster, a portfolio of land seized by the royal family in the 13th century, is worth more than £1 billion. As is the Duchy of Cornwall, land held by the Prince of Wales, a title King Charles long held until it passed onto his son, Prince William. Together the duchies earn the family tens of millions of dollars per year.
The Duchies are exempt from corporate taxes and Charles didn’t have to pay any inheritance tax on whatever he inherited from his mum. In a nutshell, the family is loaded, and the people of Great Britain give them another £100 million every year to do whatever it is they do.
“The royal family’s wealth, unlike their gene pool, is massive,” Oliver said.
The royal family’s existence is far more problematic outside of Great Britain in the many places once occupied by British colonizers. Not only were indigenous people in these places brutalized and ostracized in the name of the crown, the royal family enriched themselves by founding and running a company that was the biggest supplier of enslaved people to America. And Great Britain’s depraved mistreatment of colonized indigenous people is not just a relic of the distant past. From tearing indigenous kids away from their families and forcing them into horrific assimilation schools to the torture and murder of Kenyans during the Mau Mau rebellion, Queen Elizabeth’s reign is blighted with racist savagery, for which the royal family has never really apologized.
“To me, [the royal family] is like a human appendix,” Oliver said. “We’ve long evolved past needing them and there’s a compelling case for their surgical removal.”