Ken Clarke reckons that Boris Johnson’s plan for a successor to the Royal Yacht Britannia is “silly populist nonsense”. He’s wrong. Britain is facing a huge economic challenge. The double whammy of Brexit and the Covid-19 pandemic has left the UK facing its largest ever economic crisis. There will be a big price to pay and international trade has to be a key component of our economic revival. But international trade needs a flagship and £200 million for a new Royal Yacht is a bargain basement price for a global marketing icon.
From the very beginning of the first lockdown, the doom merchants have predicted mass unemployment and soaring recession. Economists prophesied that we could not switch off our economy for two years without disastrous consequences. The lessons of history tell a different story. Following the cholera pandemic in the early 1830s, tens of thousands died and hospitals were overwhelmed with patients that doctors didn’t know how to treat. But the end of the plague prompted an economic revival, with both France and Britain experiencing an industrial revolution. Today, to our surprise, unemployment has fallen from 4.8% to 4.7%, marking six consecutive months of jobs growth. The prediction that the end of furlough payments would expose a huge surge in jobless figures has, thankfully, proved to be inaccurate so far, although two million people are still on furlough, so the full impact has yet to be seen. But the UK added nearly 200,000 jobs in the battered hospitality sector in May alone, as lockdown conditions eased. The ending of all virus restrictions this summer will have a dramatic effect.
Economists and most politicians hate the idea that we can borrow and hand out tens of billions without any shockwaves. The UK now has a £2.3 trillion debt pile. The fear is that we may face spiralling inflation, forcing up interest rates, which will make it impossible to service this massive debt. The doom merchants forecast that this will lead to dramatic cuts in spending and galloping unemployment. To date, neither inflation nor unemployment has been an issue, although servicing the UK debt is costing us £2 billion every month and this is likely to rise to £3 billion a month by 2025. With inflation still below the Bank of England’s target of 2% and even the most pessimistic forecasters saying that it will peak at around 2.6%, there is a growing consensus in the business community that we may have got away with it. The tide may have turned. Now, we need to concentrate on re-booting the UK economy, re-establishing growth and prosperity and recreating jobs. That means selling British goods and services to the world.
The CBI has urged the UK government to think big following the pandemic. What could be bigger than commissioning a new Royal Yacht to fly the Union Jack around the world, boosting Britain’s role as a global trading nation? The new vessel would pay for itself many times over by helping to cement major trade deals internationally. It will be the first national flagship since Britannia, which was decommissioned by Tony Blair in 1997 and which, prior to the pandemic, was still attracting over 300,000 tourists annually at its permanent berth at Ocean Terminal in Leith. During its 43-year career, the Royal Yacht Britannia travelled over a million nautical miles around the world and undertook 696 foreign visits. It was a key UK foreign policy asset, helping to promote British interests abroad.
A new Royal Yacht will be used to host trade fairs and diplomatic talks, but, unlike Britannia, will not be a luxury vessel. There are even suggestions that with construction costs being met by the Ministry of Defence, the vessel should have a combined defence and trade role, with guns attached, to avoid the need for warship escorts. It will be crewed by the Royal Navy. Boris Johnson has pledged that the vessel will be built in the UK, incorporating the best of British design and the latest green technology. It remains to be seen if, like its predecessor Britannia, it can be built on the Clyde, which would be an inspirational uplift for Scotland’s industrial economy and a significant morale boost for the post-pandemic Union. As a floating shop-window promoting the best of British goods and services, the new Royal Yacht would be a superb addition to the Royal Navy’s fleet.
The new vessel will also be an ideal location for major summit meetings hosted by Britain. The recent G7 summit in Cornwall cost a staggering £70 million in policing expenses alone. It is reckoned the final bill will be nearer £90 million. A purpose-built Royal Yacht could easily accommodate such a conference in secure surroundings, at a fraction of the cost. Boris Johnson knows that if he is to fulfil his Brexit promises, he will need to secure major inward-investments to Britain, while simultaneously boosting exports and negotiating new free trade agreements. What better way to showcase the best of British culture, fashion, food, drink, services and manufacturing, than with a state-of-the-art Royal Yacht, hosting diplomatic and business meetings and promoting trade.
It would be important to continue the link to the Royal Household, following the tradition of HMY Britannia, by naming the vessel Her Majesty’s Yacht. The House of Windsor is renowned globally and Forbes Magazine estimate that their contribution annually to the British economy is worth over £12.9 billion, mostly from tourism. Maintaining that link by naming the new vessel HMY Prince Philip, would be a noteworthy factor in securing its future success. Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, was Lord High Admiral from 2011 until his death earlier this year. He served in the Royal Navy during the Second World War. Sources within Buckingham Palace have, however, said that the Royal Family are ‘displeased’ with suggestions in the media that the new yacht could be named as a tribute to the late Duke of Edinburgh. The Queen has apparently not yet been approached on the matter by the Prime Minister and clearly wishes to keep the issue at arms-length. But far from being the ‘populist nonsense’ claimed by Ken Clarke, HMY Prince Philip would be a worthy name, for a great British flagship.