Twenty years ago this year, the Royal Yacht Britannia was decommissioned after the government decided that public opinion would not support her continued costs or replacement. Michael Atkinson explores the phenominal role that HMY Britannia played in British diplomacy and trade and looks at whether Britannia should indeed be the last Royal Yacht flying the flag for Great Britain.
“I name this ship, Britannia. I wish success to her and all who sail in her”. With those famous words, Britain’s longest serving monarch, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II launched the Royal Yacht Britannia on a wet April day in 1953. A bottle of Empire wine struck her bow, the thirty thousand strong crowds erupted in delight at her name, which had been kept a closely guarded secret, and a band struck up with Rule Britannia.
Ship 691 waiting at the top of the slipway in John Brown’s Clydebank Shipyard in Glasgow would go on to serve as the Royal Yacht for forty four years, continuing a tradition of British Royal Yachts that dates back to 1660 and the reign of King Charles II. In total, the British Monarchy has had 83 Royal Yachts.
Britannia travelled over a million miles, the equivalent of once around the world for every year of her working life. During that time she conducted 696 Royal visits overseas and 272 in home waters, stopping in ports in 135 countries.
The largest yacht in the world at launch, she became globally recognized, her majestic beauty attracting thousands who flocked to see her arrive into ports all across the globe.
To name the guests who were fortunate enough to be entertained on her is to name an array of some of the world’s most powerful and influential men and women in history. Those that enjoyed Britannia’s warm hospitality included US Presidents Ford, Carter, Reagan, George Bush Snr and President Clinton. From Sir Winston Churchill to Nelson Mandela to Baroness Thatcher to Rajiv Gandhi, all spent time with The Queen in the refined surroundings of Royal Yacht Britannia.
2017 marks twenty years since Britannia’s decommissioning. 1997 saw her reign of the seas come to an end, relegated to her status now as one of Scotland’s leading tourist attractions, berthed in the Port of Leith in Edinburgh. With Britannia’s decommissioning came the end of that long lineage of Royal Yachts, but more than the end of simply a historical tradition, it marked the loss of a powerful tool in Britain’s trade and diplomatic armoury. Britannia was much more than just a yacht for the personal pleasure of Britain’s Monarch – she was a positive global icon for Britain, highlighting Britain’s place on the world stage. She was a vital diplomatic tool for Her Majesty’s government, as well as working as a critical means to secure trade investment for Britain from overseas. She played all these roles, played them well and more than earned the investment into her commissioning and upkeep.
Sit in Britannia’s top deck tea room now and you can gaze out at a bleak industrial harbour on one side or a car park and shopping mall on the other. It is a far cry from her glory days sailing the sometimes beautiful, sometimes choppy waters across the oceans from Sydney to the Seychelles to Singapore to the Solomon Islands.
A visit to the Royal Yacht Britannia offers a rare glimpse into the personal world of The Royal Family. It was a palace on the seas, but for the Royal Family, Britannia was also a family home where they could relax away from the constant glare of the media. Britannia provided some of their most precious holiday times and memories. There was the annual Western Isles tour of Scotland which often involved a stop off at the Castle of Mey to visit The Queen Mother and with her privacy and ability to sail to secluded locations; Britannia was the ideal honeymoon retreat. She played that role on four separate occasions, including in 1960 for Princess Margaret and Antony Armstrong-Jones, for Princess Anne and Captain Mark Phillips in 1973, in 1981 for the Prince and Princess of Wales and five years later, for Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson.
It was partly this image of Britannia as simply a personal luxury for the Royal Family that resulted in her ultimate demise after she became a political pawn in the 1990s. It was at this time that discussion around the future of the Royal Yacht Britannia began. It became clear that the Royal Yacht would need to undergo a significant refit or would need to be replaced by a modern yacht.
Estimates for an upgrade were put at £17million with a replacement yacht costing up to £60million. With the upgrade not a long term solution, Sir John Major’s Conservative Government announced that there would be no refit for Britannia, but subsequently announced that if it was to be re-elected, it would build a new Royal Yacht, funded from the public purse.
Public mood didn’t share the Conservative Government’s enthusiasm for a new Royal Yacht. A wave of resentment against the British ‘establishment’ was growing. Britannia and the idea of a new Royal Yacht became a symbol of the injustices of the British hierarchy of society. Much of the public viewed it as a lavish extravagance for our privileged tax-payer funded unelected head of state and her wider family. It was seen as an inappropriate and distasteful indulgence, an unwarranted gift to the Royal Family in modern times when many parts of the United Kingdom were struggling to make ends meet.
Eager to jump on any bandwagon that would lead them to power, the politics of superficiality and short-term popularity took over and the Labour Party opposed the plan for a new Royal Yacht. After the election, the new Labour Government confirmed in October 1997 that there would be no replacement for Britannia.
To end Britannia’s days due to this public mood, is to do a gross injustice to the role that Britannia played in maintaining Britain’s status on the world stage. The Royal Yacht was a great British asset, with both diplomatic and commercial value. She hosted hundreds of State Visits and was a proud ambassador for Britain. She was a tool to nurture relations with the heads of Commonwealth nations and other foreign superpowers, as well as a location for British trade delegations to entertain foreign investors. As an ambassador for British business, promoting trade and industry around the globe, the Overseas Trade Board estimated that £3 billion was made for the British Exchequer as a result of commercial days on Britannia between 1991 and 1995 alone.
She even played a key role in rescuing over 1,000 people during a period of civil unrest in South Yemen. Britannia was en route to Australia, when the civil unrest flared up. Support was urgently needed to rescue trapped foreign nationals. Britannia held a unique diplomatic status: a noncombatant Royal Navy ship. On 17th January 1986, Britannia dropped anchor and with a Union flag flying from each of her three masts, the yacht was floodlit from bow to stern. Her iconic status meant no-one could mistake who she was and her association with HM The Queen confirmed she was no threat to either side in the conflict. That evening, the first of Britannia’s boats was lowered into the sea and sailed for South Yemen’s beaches. Over five days Britannia’s boats went back and forth between the beaches and the yacht, helping to rescue 1,068 people from 55 different nationalities caught in the fierce conflict.
Despite her role in British diplomacy and trade, in October 1997, Royal Yacht Britannia left Portsmouth on a farewell tour around the United Kingdom. It was a clockwise circumnavigation of the Britain Isles and she called at six major ports, including a return to her birthplace in Glasgow, a city renowned for its shipbuilding industry. Passing John Brown’s Shipyard, Britannia gave a blast on her sirens, an acknowledgement of where her distinguished career had started and in thanks to the yard which had proudly built her. The clocks on Britannia were finally stopped at precisely 15:01, the exact time The Queen was piped ashore for the very last time.
Following Brexit, calls have begun for another Royal Yacht. Some latest estimates put costs at £100million, but viewed simply against its previous £3 billion in negotiated trade, not to mention the plethora of other roles she plays, many believe it is an investment worth making.
Britannia may no longer sail as an icon of the seas, but there is time for another Royal Yacht to once again rule the waves.