June 28, 2021 11:30:29 am
The naval architect who designed the Queen Mary 2 likened it to a “1950s fishing trawler, ” while a retired admiral sniffed that the plans for it looked like an “oligarch’s yacht.” A Conservative Party grandee ridiculed it as a “complete waste of time, silly populist nonsense.”
The target of all of this venom is Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s latest pet project: a replacement for the royal yacht Britannia, mothballed in 1997. Johnson wants to spend 200 million pounds, or $280 million, to build a new Britannia — not as a plaything for the royal family, which has evinced no interest in another yacht, but as a floating brand ambassador for post-Brexit Britain.
“This new national flagship will be the first vessel of its kind in the world,” the prime minister declared recently, “reflecting the U.K.’s burgeoning status as a great, independent maritime trading nation.”
For Johnson, whose fondness for grand projects ranges from an island airport in the mouth of the Thames River (never built) to a sleek new fleet of double-decker buses for London (built), the appeal of a new Britannia is obvious. With Britain eager to strike trade deals around the world, it could dispatch the yacht to distant ports as a visible manifestation of the Global Britain that Johnson says was birthed by Brexit.
But the project, which is also championed by the pro-Conservative paper The Daily Telegraph, has been caught up in the pesky arithmetic of public finances. The Johnson government is already busting its budget to cushion the economic blow from the pandemic. It is splashing out billions of pounds on big-ticket projects like a high-speed rail link — part of Johnson’s promise to “level up” inequities between the country’s hard-knocks north and its prosperous south.
To its critics, a royal yacht is a folly — an unaffordable vanity project from a government grasping for atavistic symbols of Britain’s greatness.
“It’s a symptom,” Kenneth Clarke, a former chancellor of the Exchequer and senior figure in the Conservative Party, told the BBC. “Two hundred million pounds is not going to cause problems. But it shows there are people in No. 10 who just think there’s free money and who think that waving a Union Jack and sending yachts and aircraft carriers around the world shows what a great power we are.”
Clarke was purged from his party in Parliament by Johnson in 2019 after he voted against one of the government’s Brexit deals. He had previously blocked a plan to replace the Britannia in the 1990s when he was serving under Prime Minister John Major, according to Richard Johnstone-Bryden, who wrote a history of the Britannia and supports the proposal to replace it.
Still, even more sympathetic members of Johnson’s party have pronounced the idea “daft,” with some predicting it would end up like other chimerical Boris Johnson projects. As mayor of London, he championed a pedestrian bridge across the Thames, topped with trees and a garden. The bridge never made it past blueprints, though it still ended up costing more than $70 million in contracts and other planning costs.
Johnson also latched on to the idea of an airport to replace Heathrow. To be built on an artificial island in an estuary of the Thames River at a projected cost of tens of billions of dollars, it was perhaps inevitably nicknamed “Boris Island” by the British press. Johnson is still beguiled by a proposal to build a 28-mile bridge connecting mainland Britain with Northern Ireland.
By these Xanadu-like standards, a $280 million boat is modest. Government officials argue it would pay for itself many times over by helping secure trade deals, military contracts and private investment in Britain.
During its 44 years of service, the Britannia was a reliable closer for the government: Once, after Major had negotiated $2 billion in contracts during a trip to India — he traveled there by plane — the yacht was dispatched to help the British nail down signatures from foot-dragging Indian officials.
“It’s not a silver bullet in the sense that if you build a royal yacht, your economy doubles overnight,” Johnstone-Bryden said. “But because of the yacht’s prestige, you can attract top officials for an event promoting a particular industry. Receptions at embassies or hotels don’t have the same draw.”
He likened the Britannia’s iconic status to that of Air Force One. In the same way that the American president’s customized blue-and-white 747 symbolizes the global reach and power of the United States, a royal yacht pays tribute to Britain’s mighty seafaring history. “I’m sure it would be inconceivable to many Americans to retire Air Force One without replacing it,” he said.
In truth, Britain has done just fine without the Britannia. While Queen Elizabeth II famously wiped away a tear when she attended the yacht’s decommissioning ceremony, the royal family has been resolutely silent about replacing it. According to The Daily Mail, it demurred at a proposal to name the new vessel the Duke of Edinburgh, after the queen’s husband, Prince Philip, who died in April. The duke, a former naval officer, had a hand in designing the original Britannia.
Under the influence of Prince Charles, the royal family has become sensitive to showy displays of wealth, particularly when they drain the public purse. The queen, who is 95, does not travel overseas anymore, so the yacht would be used by her heir, Charles, and his son, Prince William, neither of whom have her emotional connection to the Britannia.
Some question whether the whole concept of a royal yacht is superannuated in an era in which Britain is negotiating complex bilateral trade agreements with Australia, the United States, and other countries.
“At the very most, it could be useful as a trade promotion tool,” said Sam Lowe, a trade expert at the Center for European Reform in London. “But it won’t make even the tiniest difference to whether U.K. concludes a trade deal or not.”
Nor does the yacht have an obvious military purpose, even if the defense ministry would be likely to supply its crew and foot at least part of the bill for its operation.
But all of this may be missing the point. Andrew Gimson, one of Johnson’s biographers, said his pet projects — whether groovy retro buses or garden-topped bridges — invariably serve a political purpose. Johnson, he said, is akin to a Roman emperor putting on public spectacles. A royal yacht evokes the glories of Britain’s imperial past for a country still groping for a post-Brexit identity.
“There’s at least some working-class voters who would love this,” Gimson said. “And it’s yet another way of teasing the intelligentsia.”
If that is the case, the biggest problem with Johnson’s yacht may be that it is a bit dinky. An artist’s rendering issued by Downing Street drew catcalls. 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 flag of the admiralty.
The government has said little about the design process. Scuttlebutt in the industry is that it went to a Finnish ship designer. Payne, who submitted his own design, said the government’s yacht would look more at home unloading its catch in the fishing port of Hull than presiding in the royal dockyard in Portsmouth.
“I really wonder whether the people involved in it understood what they were doing,” he said. “That bridge front looks very much like a Hull fishing trawler.”
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