I well remember the brief time I spent on the old HMY Britannia. The state rooms were done out, as you’d expect, in traditional country house style, the decor just this side of chintzy, and, for its day, the state-of-the-art telecoms were impressive, so that Her Majesty could stay in touch with urgent state business at home, a miners’ strike, say, or an IRA bombing, even as she was cruising round the Seychelles or moored off Fiji.
One could not fail to be impressed by the highly varnished craftsmanship, including the surgical facilities on standby if the vessel ever had to be quickly converted to its dual use as a hospital ship in wartime (it never was, even for the Falklands). Hospitality on board was obviously lavish.
Maybe I should mention at this point that I wasn’t piped on board at the invitation of Queen Elizabeth II but was mooching around it in Leith, where it’s been a museum piece since it was decommissioned in 1997, on the orders of Tony Blair’s Year Zero revolutionary government. Strictly, by the way, I don’t think I would have been piped aboard anyway because of the Britannia’s peculiar etiquette, which also extended to the ratings/servants having to communicate via hand signals rather than verbally so as to maintain regal serenity on the boat. There’s a story that Princess Margaret gave orders that no one scrubbing the deck, say, was to so much as glance at her while she was chillaxing, and indeed one glance from her could turn any sailor to stone.
But do we miss it, really? I somehow doubt it, except if you’re a particularly blimpish Tory MP, or, as we can well see, a cynical Tory premier looking around for another totem to start a scrap about in our depressingly ceaseless culture wars. According to the designer of the majestic Queen Mary 2 liner, the government’s new flagship looks like a 1950s fishing trawler. A proper job would run to about £1bn, rather than the £200m Boris Johnson has in mind.
Now, £200m, or even £1bn, might be worth it if it could get us those elusive post-Brexit trade deals with America and India or pull in gigantic amounts of foreign direct investment. The evidence for that, though, is scant. You often hear some old buffer talking about how much Jonny Foreigner was impressed when the band of the Royal Marines struck up “A Life on the Ocean Wave” as he sipped a goodly quantity of perfectly mixed gin and Dubonnets before attaching his tipsy signature for a record order of military jets or a couple of nuclear power stations, but I’ve never seen any proper evidence of such commercial usefulness.
Quite the contrary. In my recollection, the royal yacht was mostly used for what its name suggested – taking the royal family on cruises, honeymoons and, in the most leisurely of fashions, on official visits. When Princess Diana went round the Mediterranean with her new husband in 1981, processing the knowledge that Camilla Parker-Bowles was spiritually there on the honeymoon as well, they didn’t take a few mini Metros with them to show to prospective customers in Italy or Greece. The yacht wasn’t a mobile British Leyland showroom; it was a monarchical plaything.
Or look at this the other way around. I might be wrong, but I don’t think the world’s most successful exporting nations – Germany, Japan, China – ever needed a floating gin palace to get the world to buy their cars, steel or smartphones. They probably got to dominate world markets through stuff like quality, price, innovation, reliability, investment and high productivity rather than wheeling out Prince Andrew or the Duke of Kent for a few anecdotes (though, admittedly, Andrew does have some stories to tell). Maybe it was being part of the EU and the world’s largest single market that tempted Nissan, Honda and Toyota to revitalise British manufacturing. Who can say?
As far as the rumours go, the Palace isn’t that convinced either, and isn’t keen on being associated with such profligacy as a new yacht named after Prince Philip, just as the country crawls out of the pandemic. Like the ridiculous jet Johnson has commissioned for himself, the new yacht would be another indulgence, at best a deluded belief that “soft power” can be delivered via such empty symbols, at worst very expensive personal toys, like his buses and mad bridges.
If the British people want to have an expensive new yacht because they love their royal family and the cabinet that much, then they should have one. It might cost £200m, or £1bn, or more. The tax take is large enough for the UK to build itself the biggest sea going vessel of this type in the world, should it wish to. In one of the world’s larger advanced economies, there is no practical limit to the resources that can be thrown at a project such as that. If we want a modern day folly of obscene proportions that the late Emperor Bokassa of Central Africa might have thought a bit OTT, signalling to the world that Britain has finally gone nuts, then we should go for it.
If we want to sell more Nissan Qashqais to the French or Welsh lamb to the Americans, we’ll need a better marketing gimmick.