ON THURSDAY the Queen will travel to Southampton to name a new P & O cruise liner - the Oriana - which is 69,000 gross tons, can travel at more than 25 knots and is the fastest liner to be built in 25 years. She will fly the Red Ensign, have British officers on the bridge, and sail from British ports to meet the British demand for cruising, which has grown at 15 per cent a year over the past seven years.

Note, however, that the Queen will only name the Oriana. She will not launch her, because the Oriana was launched last year from the Meyer-Weft shipbuilding yard 30 miles up the River Ems in Germany and has already done trials in the North Sea. Britons may still love the sea - they are certainly far bigger enthusiasts for cruising than any other European nation - but British manufacturing industry and British politics have turned their back on it.

This seems rather careless for an island that until long after the Second World War had the largest merchant fleet and the largest shipbuilding industry in the world. When the QE2, the last great liner to be built in Britain, went down the slipway at Clydebank in 1967 it slid into a river that could still build destroyers, tankers, freighters, coasters, submarines and ferries at half a dozen different yards. The Tyne, the Wear, the Mersey could do the same. Today the only yards that could tackle a merchant ship are at Govan in Glasgow (Norwegian-owned) and Harland and Wolff in Belfast; neither of them in the liner market. Germany has higher wage costs and a smaller and shorter shipbuilding tradition, its rivers are no wider or deeper, and yet it can make great ships, in this case for a British owner that has another three liners on order.

Ships are the mechanism that gave Britain its prosperity and our inability to build them is a striking symbol of ineptitude by governments, managements, financial institutions and that unquantifiable thing called the national will.

This may not be the time to mourn. On Thursday the Queen will cause champagne to be broken over a liner that, at least by recent standards of naval architecture, is reasonably handsome. It is said that when Lord Sterling, the P & O chairman, saw the original plans he wanted them amended so that the Oriana "looked more like a ship". She has a single funnel, a rounded stern, and lines that suggest (though the suggestion is false) that she has been built for a task more urgent than allowing Britons in sunhats to see Madeira. To the ship-lover's eye other vessels in the same trade can look distressingly functional - square and high and glass-plated like the moveable hotels they really are.

The Oriana's 14 decks make her 4,000 tons heavier than the QE2 - built for the North Atlantic passenger trade that soon ceased to exist - though she is 100 feet shorter. On board are the largest swimming pool afloat, a theatre with an orchestra pit and a revolving stage, and a waterfall that, to quote from the publicity, "descends the full height of the four- deck atrium and is the largest of its kind at sea".

The cooking is to menus devised by Anton Mosimann, cabins and public rooms display 3,000 works by British artists, and there are panelled bars with names that commemorate the long and distinguished history of the Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company (founded 1837).

A heritage ship, then, decorated to remind you of the seaways of the British Empire, port out and starboard home from India and all that, and built in Germany. God bless her and all who sail in her. Gott segne dieses Schiff und alle die darin segeln.