The new Yacht Britannia
Boris Johnson wants a new ‘national flagship’ for Britain. Is it a good idea?
What is being proposed?
In July, the Defence Secretary Ben Wallace formally announced plans for a new national flagship to “promote British businesses around the world”. Commissioned at a cost of £200m to £250m, it would be designed and built in the UK. Boris Johnson said it would reflect “the UK’s burgeoning status as a great, independent maritime trading nation”. The boat is to be a replacement for the Royal Yacht Britannia, which reached the end of its working life in 1997. The idea, first proposed in 2001, was taken up by Tory MPs in the aftermath of the Brexit referendum, and has received vociferous backing from The Daily Telegraph. It was supported by Johnson after he became PM, and given the go-ahead in May. The Government said it would be used to host trade fairs, ministerial meetings and diplomatic summits. The vessel would be crewed by the Royal Navy, and is expected to be in service for about 30 years.
Why wasn’t the last one renewed?
The Royal Yacht Britannia was in service from 1954 until 1997, a period during which it travelled more than a million nautical miles across the globe. But in 1994, the Government announced its retirement, citing the estimated £17m cost of completing a major re-fit (just seven years after the last one), which would only prolong its life by five years. In January 1997, the Conservatives promised to replace the yacht if re-elected that year, but Tony Blair’s victory spelt the end of the plan. His Labour government declined to spend public money on renewing it, citing the fact that the Queen had “made clear” that a yacht wasn’t needed for royal travel. Today, the ship is a tourist attraction in Leith, Edinburgh, with some 300,000 visitors a year.
What would a new one be like?
The details have yet to be fleshed out: the tendering process for design and construction began in July. However, the brief is to deliver “a vessel which reflects British design expertise and the latest innovations in green technology”. (Wallace said that it might have hybrid engines, or even a sail, like some modern superyachts.) The intention is to start building next year in a British shipyard, to create jobs and “help drive a renaissance in the UK’s shipbuilding industry”; at present, Britain has many top yacht designers and a thriving leisure boat industry, but most superyachts are built abroad. The yacht will have a “national security function”, too; Britannia was designed to double as a hospital ship. The ship’s name has yet to be announced: it was reported that the PM wanted to name it after the Duke of Edinburgh in tribute, but that the proposal was greeted with coolness in royal circles.
What’s the point of it?
Advocates of the ship say it will glide gracefully into ports around the world, where it will be used to wine and dine officials, thereby smoothing the way for trade deals, defence agreements and the like. They cite the example of Britannia, which they say helped bring in an estimated £3bn of trade deals between 1991 and 1995. “The world’s top investors will fall over themselves to visit a new flagship for a new type of commercial diplomacy,” said Johnson. A report last year by the think tank the Henry Jackson Society said the yacht could help “project Britain’s image around the world”; Lord Digby Jones, the former head of the CBI, said it would give the nation a “morale boost” after the pandemic.
Is everybody convinced?
No. Labour leader Keir Starmer labelled it a “vanity yacht” and called on the PM to spend the money tackling antisocial behaviour instead; the former Tory minister Ken Clarke called it “silly populist nonsense”. Many commentators are scathing. “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,” said Sean O’Grady in The Independent: quality, price, innovation and reliability, he argued, were more important. The ship doesn’t even enjoy the backing of senior members of the royal family, The Sunday Times reported. “No one wants this vessel at the Palace,” said a royal source. Courtiers, it seems, do not want it to be presented as a new “royal yacht”, which is regarded as “too grand” a symbol for the modern monarchy. They would not use it for their personal travel or holidays – though Wallace hopes it would be used for royal visits, to “showcase the royal family as one of our exports”.
How would it be paid for?
When the idea was originally proposed, the cost was estimated at £100m and was to be covered by private donors, with no burden on the taxpayer. However, the Government has now confirmed that the ship would be paid for out of the Ministry of Defence (MoD) budget – despite insisting that it would be primarily “a trade ship”. The original invitation to tender in July put the budget at £150m. However, a week after that, it was raised to £200m-£250m. Hugo Andreae, editor of Motor Boat & Yachting, thinks that, knowing the economics of superyachts, the price will rise to around £600m – unless the national flagship is to risk being “overshadowed by a tasteless megayacht belonging to some shady despot”.
Will it actually be built?
The project reportedly drew ire from the MoD, where officials asked No. 10 what they could scrap to pay for it. Chancellor Rishi Sunak is also said to be reluctant to pay for it. Johnson, however – a fan of statement projects – is said to “love the plan”. And Wallace is on board, too. He argues that the cost is a fraction of the MoD’s £42bn annual budget, and has dismissed criticism as “basket-weaving, leftie, Islington nonsense”. He insists construction will begin as soon as next year, and it will be “in the water by 2024 or 2025”.
Britannia: the original national flagship
The Royal Yacht Britannia was a symbol of British prestige, said the FT – a “glamorous nod to a lost age of naval superiority and to a different era of deference”. Built in Clydebank, Dunbartonshire, it was used for a combination of “glittering state visits, official receptions, royal honeymoons and relaxing family holidays”, according to its official website.
The ship’s first official engagement was to carry Prince Charles and Princess Anne to Malta in 1954, where they met their parents at the end of a Commonwealth tour. It was the first of 968 state voyages that the ship carried out over its 44 years of service, during which every conceivable effort was made to ensure it was as comfortable and tranquil as possible for the royals: the crew wore soft-soled plimsolls and communicated using hand signals to reduce noise. An on-board garage housed the Queen’s Rolls-Royce and a 26-strong Royal Marines band was stationed on the ship at all times.
People visiting it in Leith today will see that every clock on board has been stopped at 3.01pm – the time the Queen last disembarked following the ship’s 1997 decommissioning ceremony in Portsmouth. The Queen is said to have been at her happiest on the ship, and at that event, she famously shed a tear.