Hot on the heels of a bridge to Northern Ireland comes Boris Johnson’s latest madcap idea: a new £200m royal yacht which will be used to host trade talks and other official meetings, and to display “the UK’s burgeoning status as a great, independent maritime trading nation”.
Leave aside the highly debatable word “burgeoning” for a moment. Has anyone done any sort of cost-benefit analysis of this proposal? In the 21st century international trade deals are no longer agreed over cocktails on handsome vessels moored in harbours – if they ever were. They are hammered out over many years by teams of hard-nosed experts sitting in government offices in national capitals, which often happen to be inland.
Has anyone informed Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor, who remarked only half in jest last November that he would like to take the Prime Minister’s credit card away? The last time I looked, Britain was drowning in debt having spent nearly £400bn countering the Covid pandemic, and could only afford a 1 per cent pay rise for its heroic nurses. What signal does commissioning a frippery like a yacht send at this time? What happened to the party of fiscal rectitude? Why is Johnson so tight with his own money, but so brilliant at spending other people’s?
And where is the public clamour for a new royal yacht? I have seen no popular petitions, no social media campaigns, no great groundswell of support in parliament. With the exception of Prince Andrew, even the royal family appears conspicuously unenthusiastic about the idea. A lavish yacht would hardly be William and Kate’s style. Buckingham Palace has reportedly rejected Johnson’s idea of naming the vessel after the late Duke of Edinburgh, while a senior royal source told the Sunday Times that it would be “too grand” for the modern monarchy and is “not something we have asked for”.
The only obvious support has come from Johnson’s former employer and endlessly sycophantic mouthpiece, the Daily Telegraph, and in particular from its chief political correspondent, Christopher Hope, who has written at least three dozen articles on the issue over the past five years. But therein lies the answer. As Dominic Cummings revealed in his marathon appearance before MPs last week, the Prime Minister is “a thousand times too obsessed with the media”, and changes his mind “every time the Telegraph writes an editorial”.
Johnson is a sucker for vanity projects – remember the Thames estuary airport, the Garden Bridge, the ArcelorMittal Orbit, the Emirates cable car? But the idea of a new royal yacht has the added appeal of serving as a weapon in his cynical efforts to stoke cultural divisions for political gain.
It will appeal to the imperialist, Telegraph-reading, “Britannia Rules the Waves” nostalgics of his old school Brexiteer base, and to his new culturally-conservative “Red Wall” supporters. It is of a piece with his insistence that the Prime Minister’s RAF plane be painted red, white and blue, that the Union flag be flown from public buildings every day of the year, and that Britain’s old blue passport be resurrected.
It also enables him to accuse those, like me, who think the yacht is an absurd waste of money, of being unpatriotic. As Hope wrote triumphantly in the Sunday Telegraph: “The very idea of a replacement for a yacht that was decommissioned in 1997 by Tony Blair’s Labour government was deeply offensive to vast numbers of the bien pensant media and political class.”
I could not disagree more strongly. Johnson is the embodiment of cheap, populist jingoism, not patriotism. He offers shiny, headline-grabbing baubles, not real substance. He wraps himself in the flag even as he tears the UK apart. He boasts of Britain’s “burgeoning status as a great, independent maritime trading nation” even as he undermines its global stature and imperils its trading relations with the giant economic entity on its doorstep.
He has, in truth, so little confidence in British industry that he dares not invite foreign bids to build the yacht. There was a time when that was called protectionism.
I do not regard myself as left-wing or republican, but I sincerely hope this wretched “national flagship” never sails. If it does, it will be seen not as a symbol not of Britain’s greatness, but of arrogance, delusion and deliberately engineered division.