The Rt. Hon Boris Johnson Esq.
Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs
Foreign and Commonwealth Office
Downing Street West
London SW1A 2AL 25th September 2016
It has been reported in the media that you intend to launch consultations on whether the Royal Yacht Britannia should be recommissioned for use as a floating embassy and, possibly, resume her role as a royal yacht.
As a person who has often visited the yacht and can actually see her from my front window, I wish to register my objection to this scheme.
First of all sir, I understand you have some reputation as a historian. Then you will be aware that current Britannia is serving out her retirement as a museum and she is a beautiful one at that. On the surface one would expect the exhibits to focus solely on Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II and her family. There is far more on offer. It is not often that a slice of society from the mid 20th Century can be served to the general public in such a layer-cake fashion. Her Majesty, family and honoured guests at the top, through the officers and ranks, with the poor bloody marines and laundry crew deep in the bowels of the vessel.
Britannia as a museum is a confection for which the public has great appetite: she is the top tourist attraction in Scotland. In Leith, where Britannia is moored, there is still areas of great deprivation. More can be done to make Britannia relevant to the local population but, if she is taken away, so will be jobs and incomes. One is not solely talking of those directly employed by the company. Britannia is the centrepiece of the Ocean Terminal shopping mall which is on its way to recovery after the recent economic crisis. Hotels, restaurants and businesses all benefit from tourism that Britannia brings. A quick check on accommodation websites, such as AirBnB, shows that in Leith alone there are over 300 rooms being let out by households in the area. Removing Britannia will be a blow against Leith, people who are trying to make an honest living from hospitality and those who depend upon them.
A recommissioned Britannia will need considerable upgrading. The oil-fired steam turbines in the engine room are a magnificent museum display and they should remain as such. My father, who was a chief engineer, was scornful of the technology even in the 1970s. In marine engineering, one of the greatest advances has been with engines, with their physical size being reduced substantially over recent decades. Having previously worked with graduates of naval architect schools, it is also certain that the science of fluid dynamics and therefore ship design has seen recent improvements too.
In a very fundamental sense, Britannia is a ship of her time. Nowhere more so is on the automation side. In terms of computation power, a tourist’s average smartphone has far greater capacity than anything designed for Britannia, even in her later days of service. With recommissioning, the whole pre-digital nature of the vessel will be irrevocably and forever lost. There are very few complete historical artefacts that can show pre-digital, industrial-era technology at the zenith of design and manufactured quality. I have not even touched on the necessary upgrades which would have to be performed on the security side and whether they are even feasible in light of today’s threats.
One of the modern success stories of British manufacturing is in luxury yacht design. As a nation, we have the capability to deliver a brand new, top-class vessel that would serve as a floating bill-board for what our manufacturers are able to deliver today. If the government should decide that we do need a moveable embassy (which might also double as a new royal yacht), then we should avail ourselves of what we are currently capable of. Compared to some modern super yachts, while Britannia is undoubted regal, she is also modest in capability.
Time moves on and some things, because of the unique history and perspective that they offer, should be preserved for posterity. Britannia is one such artefact. Since I first voiced my opinions on social media, some people of nationalist persuasion have contacted me. Their perspective is concentrated upon the symbolism of the vessel and what it represents to them in terms of Britishness and royalty. The attitude is very much “let it go and good riddance". Frankly it is an attitude that shocks me. My retort was to point out that even in the Soviet Union, the Russians were smart enough to preserve their royal palaces. They even painstakingly restored those which were gutted during the Second World War. I view Britannia as a floating palace whose time of greatness has passed but should be preserved as she is now: at the height of her glory.
After reading this letter, I hope you will agree with me that the grand old lady that is Britannia deserves the honourable and useful retirement which she currently enjoys.
PS. I write a blog which covers current affairs. As such, I will be posting the above letter online and any reply you may make. MV.