75 Conservative MPs have now signed a letter to the Prime Minster urging that a commission is established to look into building a new Royal Yacht. This is the revival of a proposal originally made by Michael Gove in 2012. No design for such a ship exists as yet, but it is intended as a statement of British confidence in a post-Brexit world and as a platform for diplomacy and trade deals. Here we examine if this is a wise idea.
HMY Britannia was built by John Browns of Glasgow, launched in 1953 in very different times when the Clyde was still leading the world in shipbuilding. Britain was gradually emerging from post-war austerity, although average living standards of the time were far below that of today. Most significantly, few people in the 1950s would question the institution of monarchy or the need for the tax payer to fund a lavish yacht. Britain’s monarchs have had a string of private yachts since 1660. Britannia was nominally also supposed to be a hospital ship in emergencies, a capability that was never utilised as well as being earmarked the royal family’s ‘floating bunker’ in the event of nuclear war.
The ship was proudly manned by RN personnel or “yachties” who could volunteer to stay permanently assigned to Britannia, The ship was much-loved by the general public, the Navy and the Royal Family. Beautiful and elegant, she was a fine ambassador for the UK. She not only provided discreet and wonderful holidays for royalty but was a venue for UK diplomatic and trade missions, a role in which she was exceptionally successful. It is claimed that deals worth £3Bn to the UK economy were concluded aboard her in the early 1990s. The Conservative government of John Major planned to replace the ship and the RN had begun design work on the new ship. (Artists impression at the top of this article) The £100M design was externally broadly similar to its predecessor but with modernised bridge, flight deck and diesel-electric propulsion. Perhaps trying to enhance his flimsy socialist principles, Tony Blair axed the replacement project soon after his election victory in 1997. The ceremony to mark Britannia’s retirement held in Portsmouth was one of the most emotional RN ship decommissionings in living memory, complete with a queen in tears. Britannia is now preserved as award-winning tourist visitor attraction in Lieth.
A divisive proposal
Unfortunately, any proposal for a new Royal Yacht goes to the heart of British neurosis about class identity. Those steeped in an unhealthy culture of entitlement and petty jealously, together with the politics of republicanism, appeasement and hatred of your own nation would be implacably opposed.
In defence of the monarchy…
The queen is head of the armed forces (incidentally a valuable constitutional ‘safety valve’ absent in a republic). The monarchy represents lasting historical continuity and brings a gravitas and respect to the position of head of state that is increasingly missing from our elected politicians. The argument that they are a parasite on the taxpayer and abolishing the monarchy would save a bit of money is mere envy and very short-sighted. The interest and prestige generated by the Royal family generates its own economic benefit, hard to quantify but it almost certainly outweighs the cost of maintaining them. Loved around the world, Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth has worked incredibly hard throughout her life in the interests of the nation and continues this work despite being in her 90s. The Republic of Britain would be a poorer and a much-diminished nation. And after all, there is only one Royal Navy.
Although the new yacht would not be directly funded by the taxpayer, in a time of “austerity” it still looks like a wrong priority for government and gives the impression of Tory MPs more excited about playthings for royalty than addressing poverty or even the poor state of the RN. Inevitably there would be cries that “my local hospital / school / library etc is underfunded but we can find money for a yacht for our rich elites”.
It is boom time in the super yacht-building industry as the number of millionaires and billionaires is on the rise. Exclusive marinas across the world are filling up with the status symbols of the uber rich, many of them tax-avoiding, non-doms who have made their fortunes in the UK. Meanwhile, the public finances are struggling and the naval dockyards are increasingly empty of warships. A royal yacht would have a certain level of gravitas far above some billionaire’s display of obscene wealth but inevitably it would still be perceived as a toy for the elite. Current dire manpower shortages leave the RN quite unable to provide the crew, further diminishing the special status of a new vessel.
A security headache
The world is much-changed since the last Britannia retired and a new yacht would represent an attractive terrorist target. She might require an armed escort vessel in many areas of the world and need to draw on scarce RN resources. An RN or Royal Marine attachment might be permanently needed on board to provide force protection. All warships entering harbour now routinely have guns manned as a precaution against terrorists in small boats.
A hospital ship instead?
A good use of political capital and financial resources would be to build one, or ideally two hospital ships. As we have advocated previously, cheap merchant ship conversions, manned by the Royal Fleet Auxiliary could provide a great humanitarian resource that would be worthy ’soft power’ ambassadors for Britain and give our armed forces a mobile hospital in time of war. This could be entirely financed by DFID with minimal impact on their already generous budget.
The new aircraft carriers – an eloquent expression of UK confidence
The UK is about to benefit from the delivery of the two largest ships ever built for the Royal Navy. Their arrival will have a big impact abroad and are a ready-made statement of UK confidence and self-belief that renders a new yacht for such purposes rather redundant. The priority for HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales will be operational tasks but they can also serve as spacious platforms for trade and diplomacy. Although HMY Britannia is sadly missed and the principle of yachts for royalty seem reasonable, one can only conclude that building a replacement now would be the wrong ship at the wrong time.