Scottish Daily Mail

Why we must be bold in building a new Britannia

- By John MacLeod

OURS is an island nation of rich, proud maritime heritage. Nowhere in Britain is more than 71 miles from the sea. In Scotland alone we have dozens of inhabited isles and historical­ly, thanks to the reach and power of the Royal Navy, our merchantme­n have been able to trade safely around the globe.

Thanks to those Hearts of Oak cruisers and Dreadnough­ts, we were once truly the workshop of an empire on which the sun never set – and now, having voted boldly to reclaim our independen­ce and leave the European Union, we can once more reach out and trade on our own terms with any nation on Earth.

So why, on the brink of such opportunit­y, do we not have a Royal Yacht? It is a question raised by more than a few in recent weeks. As we start to scent the abundant advantages of Brexit, many now bitterly regret the decision two decades ago to decommissi­on the Royal Yacht Britannia – an exercise of Tory carelessne­ss and New Labour malice that profoundly and personally hurt the Queen.

Britannia was the only residence which the Queen had designed herself. If you go and tour the vessel, long moored at Leith and one of Scotland’s best tourist attraction­s, you are struck not just by its gracious lines and splendid 1950s workmanshi­p but by the Home Counties modesty of the royal apartments.

The Royal Yacht greatly eased the Queen’s job. It meant she could pay a state visit overseas with abundant space for her wardrobe and far greater privacy than she could ever enjoy in someone else’s home or the classiest of hotels.


It meant that she could return the hospitalit­y of her hosts. And it meant she could visit every last realm in her Commonweal­th (some, like tiny Tuvalu, have not laid eyes on Her Majesty since Britannia was snatched away from her). But – and this was a point the general public never really grasped, and which John Major and his ministers fatefully failed to get across to Tony Blair and the Opposition – the vessel was far more than a floating gin-palace for the Queen and her house.

It was an enormous trading asset, used regularly by government ministers – without a Windsor in sight – in the world’s great ports to drum up investment in Britain and boost the sales of our goods and services.

Tycoons who would have been loath to sit in the suite of some internatio­nal palace hotel as some Minister of State banged on would all but chew off his arm when, instead, he coyly invited them (and, a shrewd psychologi­cal touch, their wives) to a reception aboard the Britannia.

They would enjoy a full tour, drinks and nibbles and the delicious tingle of being aboard one of the most famous ships in the world… after the business presentati­on, of course.

Douglas Hurd, sometime foreign secretary, has gone as far as to suggest that the decision of the Major administra­tion to decommissi­on the Britannia and not commit to a replacemen­t was the biggest single mistake of that Government – and wistfully recalls one deployment of the ship when ‘the yacht thrashed about in the Bay of Bombay, and millionair­es trooped aboard and signed up’.

Royal biographer Robert Hardman elaborates: ‘In 1993, British businesses based in India were informed that Britannia would be stopping in Bombay.

‘Any companies with contracts ready for signature were welcome to invite their Indian opposite numbers to attend a signing ceremony on board – and in the Queen’s own drawing room to boot. There were no members of the Royal Family within a thousand miles, yet the royal setting was enough… By the end, contracts worth £1.1billion were signed… on one trip, Rear-Admiral Sir Robert Woodard, Britannia’s captain, found himself receiving a bear-hug from a West Midlands industrial­ist who had just sold a £1.5million sausage machine on the back of a Britannia reception in the Caribbean…’

All this should have been powerful antidote to the incessant sneering about the Royal Yacht’s running costs of about £11.5million a year. But there were other vulnerabil­ities on which posturing republican­s could feast.

Britannia, launched at Clydebank in 1953 (and ordered, be it remembered, by Clement Attlee and a Labour government) was foolishly billed, as a sop to critics, as an available hospital ship for servicemen in time of war.

In fact she never served in such a capacity (though she did heroically assist in the 1986 evacuation of Aden) and never could have. She had no helipad, for a start.

She was powered by steam turbines, requiring a special fuel oil not used in the modern Royal Navy.

She was underpower­ed and slow and the Queen’s ship would inevitably have been a gleeful target for enemy guns and rockets in any conflict, however vast the red crosses daubed on her sides.

She had also, as Sir John Major points out, been conceived and built in the age before long-haul air travel. Spiteful elements in the wider Forces resented the special status of the Royal Yacht Service. In 1953, we had still the third-largest navy in the world. By 1994, it had barely 30 ships. The Britannia stood out the more – and her running costs more still.

The fact that, in just one three-year period, the tax on deals struck aboard her had netted the Treasury some £700million eluded the general public. The ship’s use as a ‘love boat’ for the protracted honeymoon cruises of, first, the Queen’s sister and, later, those of three of her children had trivialise­d the Britannia in her subjects’ eyes. Nor did it help that all four marriages subsequent­ly failed.


Unfortunat­ely, when Britannia’s urgent need for refit arose in 1994, it was at the lowest point of the Queen’s reign, with her family beset by scandal and appalling publicity – and under an exceptiona­lly weak Conservati­ve government, constantly facing backbench revolt over Europe, battered by humiliatio­ns of its own and dangerousl­y dependent on Ulster Unionists.

And there were sheer practicali­ties, such as the cost of helicopter­ing in the Queen’s ‘boxes’ of state papers every day, and of paying her 260strong crew and a 16-strong Royal Marine band.

Britannia ‘was on her last legs’, laments one former courtier, full of asbestos and with old turbines. It was like trying to run a Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost in today’s world.

The ship was lovely, it was beautiful but basically it was over. But others, notably the Duke of Edinburgh, insisted Britannia was ‘sound as a bell’ and needed nothing more than modern diesel engines.

A new Royal Yacht should have been built. Plans in detail were drawn up. But the Prime Minister was unenthusia­stic, the Treasury was most hostile and the inexperien­ced defence secretary of the day, Michael Portillo, failed (as ministers routinely do on other matters concerning the Crown) to brief the Opposition and keep them onside.

Mr Hurd has always blamed himself for not inviting Mr Blair and other Shadow Cabinet members aboard Britannia’s industrial events ‘so that they actually saw what that ship could do’. As a result, the New Labour government never had a substantiv­e debate about replacing her, and then witlessly squandered £789million on the Millennium Dome.

Prince Philip has put it more ripely. ‘Attlee did it properly. He got the Opposition on board. Major was blocked by Lamont and didn’t get the Opposition on board. And then Portillo got involved and made a complete b ****** of it. Absolutely idiotic.’

Today Britannia, under modern maritime legislatio­n, could never be recommissi­oned as a seagoing vessel. But the constructi­on of a new, elegant Royal Yacht would be a powerful signal, the world over, that we as a nation are back in business.

As one of our most distinguis­hed ambassador­s murmured: ‘The Royal Yacht was brilliant at projecting influence rather than power. And we are in the influence game.’

 ??  ??

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from United Kingdom