Royal yacht or fishing trawler? Either way, even the royal family isn’t interested
The naval architect who designed the Queen Mary 2 compared it to a ‘1950s fishing trawler’, while a retired admiral sniffed that the plans looked like an ‘oligarch’s yacht’. A big man in the Conservative Party ridiculed it as “utter waste of time, silly populist nonsense.”
The target of all this venom is Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s latest company project: a replacement for the Royal Yacht Britannia, put on hold in 1997. Johnson wants to spend Â£ 200million, or $ 280million, to build a new Britannia. – not as a toy for the royal family, who have shown no interest in another yacht, but as the brand’s floating ambassador for post-Brexit Britain.
“This new national flagship will be the first such ship in the world,” the Prime Minister said recently, “reflecting the UK’s nascent status as a great independent maritime trading nation”.
For Johnson, whose taste for big projects ranges from an island airport at the mouth of the Thames (never built) to a sleek new fleet of double-decker buses for London (built), the allure of a new Britannia is obvious. With Britain eager to make trade deals around the world, it could send the yacht to distant ports as a visible manifestation of global Britain which Johnson says grew out of Brexit.
But the project, which is also championed by pro-conservative newspaper The Daily Telegraph, has been caught in the pesky arithmetic of public finances. The Johnson government is already breaking its budget to cushion the economic blow from the pandemic. He is spending billions of pounds on expensive projects like a high-speed rail link – part of Johnson’s promise to âlevelâ the inequalities between the country’s north and its prosperous south.
To its detractors, a royal yacht is folly – an unapproachable vanity scheme of a government hungry for atavistic symbols of Britain’s greatness.
“It’s a symptom,” Kenneth Clarke, former Chancellor of the Exchequer and senior Conservative Party official, told the BBC. âTwo hundred million pounds is not going to cause any problems. But it does show that there are people in number 10 who just think there is free money and think waving a Union Jack and sending yachts and aircraft carriers around the world shows how great a power we are.
Clarke was kicked out of his party in Parliament by Johnson in 2019 after voting against one of the government’s Brexit deals. He had previously blocked a Britannia replacement plan in the 1990s while serving under Prime Minister John Major, according to Richard Johnstone-Bryden, who has written a Britannia history and supports the proposal to replace it.
Still, even more sympathetic members of Johnson’s party have declared the idea “silly”, with some predicting it would end up like other pipe dreams of Boris Johnson. As mayor of London, he defended a pedestrian bridge over the Thames, topped with trees and a garden. The bridge never went beyond plans, although it still cost over $ 70 million in contracts and other planning costs.
Johnson also clung to the idea of ââan airport to replace Heathrow. Built on an artificial island in a Thames estuary at an estimated cost of tens of billions of dollars, it was perhaps inevitably dubbed “Boris Island” by the British press. Johnson is still enticed by a proposal to build a 28-mile bridge connecting mainland Britain to Northern Ireland.
By these Xanadu-like standards, a $ 280 million boat is modest. Government officials argue it would pay off many times over by helping to secure trade deals, military contracts and private investment in Britain.
In its 44 years of service, the Britannia was a reliable close to the government: once, after Major negotiated $ 2 billion contracts on a trip to India – he flew there – the yacht was sent to help the British find signatures. Indian officials dragging their feet.
âIt’s not a silver bullet in the sense that if you build a royal yacht your economy doubles overnight,â said Johnstone-Bryden. âBut because of the prestige of the yacht, you can attract top officials to an event promoting a particular industry. Receptions in embassies or hotels do not have the same circulation.
He compared the iconic status of the Britannia to that of Air Force One. In the same way that the President’s personalized blue and white 747 symbolizes the global reach and might of the United States, a Royal Yacht pays homage to Britain’s powerful maritime history. âI’m sure it would be inconceivable for many Americans to withdraw Air Force One without replacing it,â he said.
In truth, Britain has done very well without Britannia. While Queen Elizabeth II wiped away a tear as she attended the yacht’s decommissioning ceremony, the Royal Family have been steadfastly silent on her replacement. According to the Daily Mail, he opposed a proposal to name the new ship the Duke of Edinburgh, in honor of the Queen’s husband Prince Philip, who died in April. The Duke, a former naval officer, was involved in the design of the original Britannia.
Under the influence of Prince Charles, the royal family became sensitive to ostentatious displays of wealth, especially when they drain public funds. The Queen, who is 95, no longer travels abroad, so the yacht would be used by her heir, Charles, and her son, Prince William, who have no emotional connection with the Britannia.
Some wonder if the whole concept of a royal yacht is outdated at a time when Britain is negotiating complex bilateral trade deals with Australia, the United States and other countries.
âAt most, it could be useful as a trade promotion tool,â said Sam Lowe, trade expert at the Center for European Reform in London. “But it won’t make the slightest difference whether or not the UK does a trade deal.”
The yacht does not have an obvious military vocation either, although the Defense Ministry would be likely to provide her crew and her foot with at least part of the bill for its operation.
But all of this may miss the point. Andrew Gimson, one of Johnson’s biographers, said his favorite projects – whether groovy retro buses or garden-topped bridges – invariably serve a political purpose. Johnson, he said, looks like a Roman Emperor putting on public performances. A royal yacht evokes the glories of Britain’s imperial past for a country still in search of a post-Brexit identity.
âThere are at least a few working class voters who would love this,â Gimson said. “And that’s yet another way to tease the intelligentsia.”
If so, maybe the biggest problem with Johnson’s yacht is that it’s a little shabby. An artist rendering published by Downing Street drew whistles. Stephen Payne, a naval architect who designed the Queen Mary 2 to evoke the great ocean liners of the past, said the yacht would be too small to have adequate exhibition and conference space. As currently designed, it has only two masts; a royal yacht needs three – to fly the Royal Standard, the Union Jack and the Admiralty Flag.
The government has said little about the design process. Scuttlebutt in the industry is that he went to a Finnish ship designer. Payne, who submitted his own design, said the government yacht would be more comfortable offloading its catch in the fishing port of Hull than chairing the Royal Dockyard at Portsmouth.
“I really wonder if the people involved understood what they were doing,” he said. “This foredeck looks a lot like a hull fishing trawler.”