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Grandiosity is not the same as grandeur. A few decades back the Royal Yacht Britannia was a symbol of British prestige, a glamorous nod to a lost age of naval superiority and to a different era of deference. It was a wonderful extravagance, but an extravagance nonetheless.
Amid a growing consensus that the British monarchy was too large and expensive, Tony Blair’s government decided not to renew Britannia when it reached the end of its working life in 1997, after John Major’s Conservative government had announced its retirement. The UK has coped without it for nearly 25 years.
Now Prime Minister Boris Johnson has committed his government to a new vessel, in spite of suggestions that leading royals are themselves unconvinced of the need. Both the Prince of Wales and the Duke of Cambridge have reportedly distanced themselves from the idea.
The defence secretary Ben Wallace has admitted that even before any building begins the projected cost has risen by up to £100m. The ministry issued an invitation to tender for a contract worth £150m, but launching the project last week Wallace predicted costs of between £200m and £250m.
The argument for the new vessel is that it will be a valuable tool in trade promotion, a symbol of British pride, gliding gracefully into port and hosting receptions. No doubt there is some benefit to be had in hosting a good party, though the allure of a big yacht might be diminished if there is not a senior royal on board.
But in truth the yacht is an expensive and empty symbol, another of the grand projects to which the prime minister is often drawn. This nod to a romantic past is a waste of money that is hard to justify when the government is pleading poverty both on maintaining welfare payments at home or on meeting its commitments on overseas aid funding.
Nor is this likely to offer much assistance in replenishing the exports lost by the government’s hardline approach to Brexit. While ministers are planning a new trade promotion vessel, numerous businesses in Britain are giving up on selling goods to Northern Ireland and to the EU because of the added costs and bureaucracy. Johnson’s serial threats to abrogate his own Brexit treaty have damaged the UK’s standing as a rules-based nation.
Winning new trade opportunities, especially in the US and the Pacific region is key to this government’s economic strategy. To that end it is rightly pursuing trade deals and seeking to join the CPTPP, the trans-Pacific trade group. Nor is it wrong to seek imaginative ways to boost trade, but there is no analysis of the costs to support the expense of building, not to mention maintaining and operating, a new yacht. No figures have been produced to show the value of the vessel.
Johnson’s Conservatives, with their romantic view of English exceptionalism, place great store in symbols. But greatness does not lie in the trappings of history. The prime minister has promised a new golden age and is keen on the symbols to project that notion.
The yacht project is one more distraction from the essential tasks of government and the glaring gaps in his agenda. His Asia-Pacific trade and diplomatic strategy remains largely aspirational; his long promised levelling-up plans are piecemeal and vague.
Global reputation and economic power are the core of a nation’s status. Johnson has undermined both and will not repair either with fripperies and flag-waving. Projecting Britain’s image is important, but there is a lot more to it than building a boat.