Harry and Meghan's 'progressive role' would still rely on British taxpayer millions

"This idea that they are going to be financially independent is a fantasy," said Graham Smith, who leads the anti-monarchy campaign group Republic.

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By Alexander Smith

LONDON — It was a thunderbolt announcement that lays plans for an unprecedented relationship between the British monarchy and two of its younger royals.

To hear them tell it, Prince Harry and Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, plan to distance themselves from the taxpayer-funded comfort of the monarchy and brave it in the real world. Senior members of the royal family are to meet Monday to discuss their future roles.

On closer inspection, the "new progressive role" they want to pursue would appear to have them benefit from millions of dollars bankrolled by the British public — while walking away from many obligations traditionally tied to that life.

Through her acting career, Meghan, 38, was wealthy long before she met Prince Harry, 35. Nevertheless, the couple's proposed scheme would carve out an extraordinary hybrid status within the monarchy — one that critics say looks a lot like have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too hypocrisy and risks countless potential contradictions.

"This idea that they are going to be financially independent is a fantasy," Graham Smith, who leads the anti-monarchy campaign group Republic, said. "It's clear there are all sorts of costs that are still going to be incurred by the taxpayer."

Meghan and Harry leave Windsor Castle after their wedding in May 2018.Getty Images file

Because nothing like this has been attempted before, it is unclear how this new relationship will work.

The Sussexes want to "step back as 'senior' members of the royal family" and give up some of their funding, while keeping their titles and continuing some royal duties.

Their decision has been met with sympathy from some quarters, especially given the abuse, harassment and outright racism Meghan has received from sections of the British press. Some 45 percent of respondents to a YouGov poll Thursday said they supported the decision, while 26 percent opposed it.

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And some experts believe the "new working model" might actually be a success.

"Some part of the year they will be working for the queen, some part they won't," Kate Williams, a royal historian and a professor at Reading University in England, told the BBC. "I can see it working out. I really think it's very possible."

Others feel that the semi-royal, semi-private existence that the Sussexes want is incompatible with the duties and political neutrality expected from the monarchy.

Royal memorabilia featuring Harry and Meghan is displayed in a souvenir shop in Windsor on Thursday.Daniel Leal-Olivas / AFP - Getty Images

They have made much of their pledge to give up the cash they receive from the "Sovereign Grant." This money is generated by a vast state-run property empire, the Crown Estate. The government gives the royals a slice of this, just over $100 million this year, to run their affairs.

But this only accounts for 5 percent of the Sussexes' official expenditure. They will keep receiving the other 95 percent, which is financed by another sprawling estate, the Duchy of Cornwall, run by Harry's father, Prince Charles.

Established in the 1300s, the duchy's land and properties are dotted around southwest England and total some 130,000-acres — about 10 times the size of Manhattan. It has attracted significant criticism and concern from lawmakers because it is exempt from business taxes, and its opaque financial dealings are not fully overseen by the British Treasury.

Harry and Meghan's continued reliance on this calls into question the claim on their website that they "do not receive any tax privileges."

It also hints at a wider debate about whether the royals are good value for money at all. Brand Finance, a consultancy firm, estimates the royal "brand" is worth $88 billion and the family brings in $1.8 billion a year in tourism, media and the arts.

However skeptics point out that the palaces and the jewels would still attract foreign visitors even if the monarchy itself were abolished or scaled back. The Palace of Versailles attracts hordes of tourists to France despite its last royal occupant, King Louis XVI, having his head chopped off more than two centuries ago.

In any case, an attempt to tweak the Sussexes' day-to-day funding will always be small fry compared to the hereditary financial privilege that has defined Harry's life. His estimated net worth of $40 million is largely thanks to inheritances from the queen, Queen Mother and Princess Diana.

Frogmore Cottage.GOR / Getty Images file

The couple say that for part of the year, they will continue to live at Frogmore Cottage, a large royal residence near Windsor Castle that stretches the idea of a "cottage" to its extreme. Its recent renovation to the Sussexes' specifications cost the taxpayer more than $3 million.

It's not clear whether they will pay the queen rent, as some have suggested they might.

They will also continue to receive private security from the London-based Metropolitan Police, whose costs are kept secret but likely go into the hundreds of thousands annually. It's unclear who will finance their security while in North America, where they plan to spend much of their time.

The couple say one of the reasons they want to go it alone is "the ability to earn a professional income" — something that's currently prohibited for front-line royalty. Their brand as young, climate-conscious, and perhaps even quasi-rebellious royals could be lucrative, not least because they are keeping their titles and the newly trademarked "Sussex Royal" name.

Bloomberg News spoke with experts who estimated that Meghan could earn around $100,000 per public speech, and Harry nearly $500,000 — the same as former President Barack Obama.

"Harry has effectively said, 'Thanks very much for the titles and the royal status, for part of the year I'm going to give up my responsibilities and to go and make money from it,'" Graham of the campaign group Republic said. "If a politician did that, it would be called corruption."

The Sussexes' representatives did not respond to NBC News' requests for comment.