The Daily Telegraph
Global Britain should launch a new royal yacht
Afriend of mine met the Duke of Edinburgh at a party for senior farm tenants at Windsor Castle soon after Tony Blair’s new government had decided not to commission a replacement for the Royal Yacht Britannia.
My friend happened to be wearing a Royal Thames Yacht Club tie. Prince Philip buttonholed him and said: “I see you are a fellow member of my club; what yacht do you have?” “Oh, I am just a humble land agent in your service, sir; I can’t afford a yacht,” my friend answered. “And neither, it seems, can we!” responded the Duke.
That has remained the position ever since. From time to time, rather wistful proposals are made for a new yacht, but somehow are never taken seriously.
Perhaps they should be. Everyone nowadays recognises the importance of “soft power”. Britannia, which was launched in 1953, was a unique floating ambassador for the new reign of Elizabeth II and, by extension, for the country over which she reigned. The yacht’s unshowy craftsmanship expressed the spirit of the age, and something of the spirit of Prince Philip himself.
She paid 696 foreign visits before retiring after the handover of Hong
Kong to China in 1997. In every country she visited, guests almost literally fought to get on board. She was royal, well-made, elegant rather than luxurious, distinctively British. She did nothing but good for our world reputation.
Post-brexit, and making our own way in the world, we are feeling a renewed interest in the sea. “Global Britain” is the current buzz phrase, but the concept arose because of our maritime prowess, which took us almost everywhere for centuries. It would be an exciting challenge – and a practical benefit – to re-express this tradition in a new royal yacht for the 21st century.
It is usually good to head a league table, but for a long time now Britain has led a list which instils no pride. We have had more Covid deaths per million than any other major country. True, smaller nations such as Belgium, Bulgaria and the Czech Republic have been ahead of us but, among the big players, we have stood out.
Over the weekend, this changed. As of yesterday morning, Italy had pulled above us. It stood at 1,884 deaths per million, the United Kingdom at 1,872. (There are small variations in the published charts of these numbers, by the way, according to different counting methods used.)
The situation has changed fast. As recently as March 18, Italy’s rate was 1,695; ours was 1,854. Obviously no one’s rate can fall, since deaths can only – sad to say – accumulate, but
Britain’s upward movement is now small – 18 more deaths per million in that period. Italy’s number has risen over 10 times that rate. It is part of a wider European trend – with Spain, France and Poland rising fast; and even Germany, though from an enviably low base. As of April 9, there had been 162 British deaths in the previous seven days, compared with 2,533 in Italy, 1,720 in France and 1,109 in Germany.
By far the biggest factor in this difference is the British rate of vaccination. It is very good news for us, and very sad for EU citizens, whose current rate of death could have been avoided by better procurement. Across the European Union, thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, are dying needlessly.
But before we feel too triumphant, we should recognise that since the figures indicate a correlation between death and public policy, we need to understand that correlation in our earlier, wretchedly bad figures. Was it the failure to lock down earlier? The plight of care homes? Or our reluctance, following the policy of the World Health Organisation, to close our borders much more firmly?
David Cameron’s laborious explanation of his lobbying for the company Greensill serves to illustrate the problem he is trying to dispel.
It can be a good thing – both here and abroad – if ex-prime ministers do lobby for some British businesses and projects. The backing of a person of such experience can be extremely persuasive. After leaving office, Margaret Thatcher hardly ever made a work-related trip abroad without trying to press the case of British firms.
But such lobbying worked precisely because she was not paid to do it. It made her advocacy much more convincing. Mr Cameron says he approached the present Government over Greensill “because I sincerely believed there would be a material benefit for UK businesses at a challenging time”. That may be true, but since the only certain material benefit deriving from these encounters was to him, he weakened his own case.
I suspect that Rishi Sunak was annoyed by Mr Cameron’s intervention. He felt bound to deal with him, given his seniority and experience, but was aware that his advice was biased because of who was paying. If Greensill had not paid him, his intervention might indeed have been positively helpful. Mr Cameron’s suggestions were “not taken up”, says Mr Cameron himself, as if that made them all right.
Problems about paid lobbying can sometimes be suspended in an emergency. Mr Cameron thinks he has a Covid-crisis case here. But it is impossible to avoid the suspicion that his rush to make Greensill’s case was caused by the fact that the company was heading for the rocks.