Tide of opinion turns against royal yacht

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The Independent Online
The future of the Royal Yacht Britannia has been the subject of intense debate. Yesterday Whitehall sources claimed it will not be replaced. Significantly, there was no official denial. Kim Sengupta reports.

Britannia's valedictory voyage will be around the entire coastline of Britain, a country much changed since the yacht's launch at Clydebank 43 years ago, a country no longer in the mood to pay for a lavish replacement. It is the recognition of this mood by the Government and the Royal Family, according to sources, which is leading to the decision that it will be the last royal yacht.

Officially, royal spokesmen stressed yesterday that the Queen had made it clear that she accepted the decision on whether or not to replace Britannia would be taken purely on the basis of national interest. Royal aides took pains to point out that as early as l994 the then defence secretary, Michael Rifkind, told the Commons: "The Queen has made it known that, in the light of changes in the pattern of royal visits since the yacht was built, she does not consider a royal yacht to be necessary in the future solely for the purpose of royal travel. "

Royal spokesmen also confirmed that discussions had taken place between the Government and senior courtiers, although the final say on Britannia's fate would rest with the Cabinet. Ministerial opinion had been hardening against bearing the high cost of replacing or refitting the yacht. The pounds 60m suggested as the replacement cost by the Tory defence secretary Michael Portillo is estimated to be considerably below the cost now. Ministers and civil servants are sceptical about another scheme, involving public and private partnership for a pounds 50m refit.

Within the Ministry of Defence, too, there is concern that funds needed for the hard- pressed military budget would be diverted to refit a ship expensive to run and prone to problems after modernisation.

Even before the election, Labour strategists were surprised at public hostility to the use of taxpayers' money on a royal yacht, with newspaper polls recording a 20-1 majority against such a scheme. The issue figured more strongly in focus groups than subjects like Europe. The mood is believed to have been heightened by growing antipathy towards pomp after the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. Whitehall sources point out that Britannia's much-discussed "business function" is overstated: only 63 days were devoted to trade promotions between l989 and 1996, and the Queen only used the ship for 11 days last year. It was used by the Prince and Princess of Wales on their honeymoon but even then there was doubt as to whether it was suitable. Jonathan Dimbleby, in his biography of the Prince, wrote: "Even an intimate dinner by candlelight was hardly a private affair, accompanied as it was by the camaraderie of the senior officers at the table and a band of Royal Marines playing `romantic medley' in the background".

It is seen as fitting that Britannia's last appearance on the world stage was as the remnants of empire were folded away at Hong Kong. When the Queen christened it in April l953 there was still a Chief of the Imperial Defence Staff and colonies dotted around the world. The vessel replaced the Victoria and Albert, the 50-year-old ship the Queen's father, George VI, had used; the cost of construction was pounds 2,098,000.

Since then it has sailed almost 1 million miles, ferrying the Queen and Royal Family around the Commonwealth. Its complement of 21 officers and 229 men are specially selected from volunteers. It also carries, for special occasions, a Royal Marine band of 26 musicians. The royal apartments are aft; the crew's accommodation forward. The lower deck houses offices of the "private secretaries" with a reception-room for up to 250 guests.

During the Falklands conflict there was a plan to send Britannia to the South Atlantic as a hospital ship. But it was pointed out that the type of fuel it used was hard to replenish in a war zone. Britannia did see action when it rescued British and other foreign residents caught in the crossfire during the l986 civil war in South Yemen. The ship was then anchored off Aden, the last bastion of Britain's east-of- Suez policy.