Monday, 18 November 2013

Picking up the Tab for a New Britannia - Gladly

In my launch piece on Royal Navy policy I threw out a comment on building a new Britannia that I left danging for future elaboration. In some ways me tossing a new royal yacht into a Royal Navy policy is not entirely accurate for whomever in British industry or diplomacy that has ever been involved with the vessel in its glory days knows the Britannia was much more that a floating hotel suite to keep the royals out of the grotty local hostelries. It was in fact a veritable one-vessel marketing armada that burst through more trade barriers than any of the privateers that nation encouraged to prowl the high seas during the post-war decades.

The chairman of the company of which I am the CEO used to be a mining executive in Ghana during the 1980s and 1990s and commented to me that the biggest impact that was made locally by the British on trade and influence always seemed to emanate from the arrival of Britannia in Accra where an invite on board was "to die for" in local business and political circles. These anecdotes about around the world.

It is also no surprise that it is industrial and trade interest groups that would like to see a new Britannia sailing the waterways of countries where we wish to make trade or diplomatic inroads far more than royalists pining over a departed manifestation of imperial might. For these reasons the debate on whether the Royal Navy or the Royal Household budget should be funding a replacement is moot because it should really be DTI leading the charge and footing the bill for the new vessel. Moreover the new vessel should be built at the Portsmouth shipyard as the first vessel to go down the slipway under renationalised ownership.



In way of some background we should refresh that the demise of the vessel (or rather of its replacement) was an example of Tory inaction and Labour parsimony. Britannia was obviously not cool enough for Tony Blair as he could not park it and his ego in the White House rose garden where he felt his destiny belonged. 

In 1997, John Major's Conservative government committed itself to replacing the Royal Yacht if re-elected, while the Labour Party declined to disclose its plans for the vessel. Following Labour's victory on 1 May 1997 it was announced that the vessel would be retired and no replacement would be built. The Conservative government argued that the cost of the vessel was justified by its role in foreign policy and promoting British interests abroad, particularly through conferences held by British Invisibles. When cancelling the replacement of the vessel, the new Labour government argued that the expenditure could not be justified given the other pressures on the defence budget (from which it would be funded and maintained). Proposals for the construction of a new royal yacht, perhaps financed through a loan or by the Sovereign's own funds, have since made little headway.

Schemes since that time to revive the project have fallen foul of small-mindedness, leaks, anti-Royal Family sentiment (which wasn't doing so well in the wake of Diana) and the feeling that the Queen was not as steady on her sea-legs as she had formerly been. The small-mindedness comes with the UK political territory but the arguments about the Queen no longer wanting to be a sea-dog fly in the face of the new generation(s) appearing on the scene and the fact that the boat can have other, more important, uses than mere accommodation. The Britannia was a unique selling tool.

At this time when bogus arguments for shuttering Portsmouth's shipyard are being trafficked around, it would be a very neat solution for our party to enunciate a policy (with strict cost controls) of a new Britannia built at Portsmouth. Industry could help with the cost or moreover, as it will be a floating showcase, provide furnishings, carpeting and fittings that display the "Best of British" in arts, crafts and technology. This would go down REALLY well in Portsmouth and across a swathe of the country where we have Tory-facing challenges in 2015 as well as being well-viewed in British industry. 

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