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    Tuesday, September 27, 2022

    After the sympathy, British royals face something else: Scrutiny

    The death of Queen Elizabeth II sparked a wave of sympathy for the British royals. Tributes have come in from around the world, while the streets of London have been packed with mourners. Some queued up by the thousands to pay their respects across Britain. Polls show a surge in support for King Charles III, never the most popular British royal.

    But amid all this, there are signs of something far more uncomfortable for the long-standing U.K. monarchy: Scrutiny.

    In the days since the queen's passing, there have been sometimes vicious debates about her family's role in Britain's bloody colonial history. The detail that Charles will not pay an inheritance tax on the assets passed down by the queen, an inheritance probably worth hundreds of millions of dollars, has raised new questions about the unusual and secretive financial arrangements of the family.

    Meanwhile, the arrests of anti-royal protesters on British streets have raised new questions about the way Britain handles criticism of the Royal sovereign.

    All in all, the overwhelming public sentiment in Britain and much of the world remains supportive of the royal family amid what is, at its simplest, a death in the family. But as the lengthy period of mourning goes on (the queen's funeral is just under a week away), the U.K. public will have plenty of time to think about the royal family - and what it means for the country.

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    The discussion is hardly limited to Britain. Given the British Empire's once-storied status as a place on which the sun never sets, links to the royal family can be found all over the world, for better or worse.

    Reporting from Nairobi - a place with a bloody history with Britain - The Washington Post's Rael Ombuor described how even the families of former Kenyan freedom fighters felt sympathy for the British people and the royal family in particular. But they also remembered the bloody fight that Britain imposed on the anti-colonial forces in the country.

    Along with fellow Post writers Rachel Chason and Meena Venkataramanan, Ombuor detailed the mixed feeling across British colonies at what one Kenyan author and activist called the "mythmaking machine" already at work for Elizabeth and the royal family.

    "The thing that I think Western people need to genuinely try to absorb and realize is that colonialism is history in the West," Sipho Hlongwane, a writer based in Johannesburg, told The Post. "It is a thing of the past, in the West. But in our countries, colonialism is now."

    Though the queen had largely ceremonial powers, the government she represented caused pain and suffering for many, while the royal family enriched itself. The family's famous crown jewels contain the Kohinoor diamond and Great Star of Africa, "gifted" by India and South Africa. There are fresh calls to return them.

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    The wealth of the royal family is controversial and secretive. As I wrote this week, for the rest of Britain, any inheritance valued over $380,000 results in a 40 percent tax bill. But Charles will pay zero dollars on whatever he inherits from his mother and neither will any of his siblings.

    This is just one of the unusual arrangements between the British government and the royal family, which offer huge tax advantages for the monarchy and shroud even basic questions about their wealth - like how much money they actually have - in layers of secrecy and obfuscation. The queen's will is not made public and is instead kept under lock and key, part of a century-old year royal legal quirk that began with a strange story of family jewels bequeathed to a prince's lover.

    These questions are unlikely to go anywhere anytime soon. Charles himself has already been at the center of many of them; as prince, his Duchy of Lancaster - an "ancient body" and huge portfolio that encompasses 71 square miles and is worth more than $950 million - was accused of dodging taxes and having an unfair advantage over other private businesses.

    Britain's foremost liberal newspaper, the Guardian, has already published an editorial calling for Britain's parliament to put more pressure on the royal finances and said the inheritance tax deal "needs to be reviewed." The enormous cost of the queen's funeral, most of which will be born by the British taxpayers, could add to this pressure.

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    Even before all this new scrutiny, many Britons were skeptical of the royal family. And so when crowds of royal well-wishers gathered in the streets over the weekend, often there were protesters among them. But police have moved in to silence these demonstrations, even arresting some of the men and women behind them.

    As The Post's Annabelle Timsit reports from London, the "people have been picked up by police as they shouted against the crown, heckled royals marching by, carried anti-monarchists signs, and in one case, a blank sheet of paper." The move has raised alarm in Britain, with lawmakers calling the police action an infringement of the right to protest.

    "No one should be arrested for just expressing republican views," Zarah Sultana, an opposition member of parliament representing Coventry South, wrote Monday on Twitter. "Extraordinary - and shocking - that this needs saying."

    After the controversy, the hashtag "NotMyKing" trended on Twitter - a reference to a slogan on a sign of one protester who was filmed being dragged away Monday. But some legal scholars have argued that the restriction on protests amid the Royal mourning has raised questions about the nature of freedom in Britain.

    "For all the complacent publicity that this country is a country of free speech, the British really don't get free speech in the way that Americans do," Clive Stafford Smith, a British American civil rights attorney, told The Post.

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    How will the royal family handle the scrutiny? Charles is widely expected to make changes to the way that the monarchy operates in Britain, including downsizing the spacious royal households and taking a more active hand in the businesses that make up their wealth.

    But the new king is already 73 years old, eight years older than when most Britons retire. He has spent much of his life pushing the boundaries of the royal family's largely ceremonial power. Though he has seen a significant rise in his approval ratings after the queen's death, he has historically divided opinion and republican groups are sizing up their opportunity.

    The sympathy is likely to fade. But the scrutiny could grow.

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