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The Royal Yacht Britannia in Hong Kong Harbor in June 1997. (AP Images)


The plan to build a new royal yacht is gaining support in Britain.

The ship is intended to replace the original Royal Yacht Britannia, which for decades had transported Queen Elizabeth and members of her family around the world until it was decommissioned in 1997.

The Guardian reported on Sunday that Britain’s education minister Michael Gove had sent a memo to other senior government ministers suggesting that giving the Queen a new yacht in her Diamond Jubilee year would be a fitting way of honoring the monarch’s service to her country.

In the memo, leaked to the Guardian, Gove expressed concerns that current plans to celebrate the Jubilee were “transient” and suggested that a yacht would be a more “tangible” and “lasting legacy.”

Gove wrote that gloomy economic conditions provided an even more urgent reason for the big splash a new yacht would create. “In spite, and perhaps because of the austere times,” he wrote, “the celebration should go beyond those of previous jubilees.”

Gove’s sentiments about a new yacht were shared by many, but the question of who would pay for the ship, estimated to cost in the range of £80 million ($123 million), created immediate controversy. There was swift and overwhelming opposition to using taxpayer money, but Prime Minister David Cameron threw his support behind a privately funded initiative, and politicians of all stripes agreed.

The plan is currently to build a boat that would be equipped to carry the royals but that would also serve other functions as well. In addition to being used for training and environmental missions, it could be used for trade, corporate and public functions.

The original Britannia was used exclusively by the royal family, and its operation was determined to be too expensive, so it was decommissioned and opened to the public in Edinburgh. Today, it’s one of the UK’s most popular tourist attractions.

Earlier this month, the yacht was moved for the first time in 14 years in preparation for pre-Jubilee repairs and maintenance.  But it began to take on water, apparently through a leaking door, and started listing to the starboard side, by as much as eight degrees, until crews fixed the leak and pumped out the water.

A private charity, the Future Ship Project 21st Century, was created to finance the building of the new vessel. Backers hope to raise the money from donors and corporate sponsors, after whom some parts of the new ship will likely be named.

Rear Admiral David Bawtree, who is leading the project, told the Daily Mail: “Obviously, we will use established means of fundraising, and if someone wants to put their name on a particular cabin, then that’s wonderful,” he said.

The Mirror ran the headline, “For sale: Advert space on new royal yacht.”

But Bawtree insisted that it wouldn’t become a floating corporate commercial.

“There will be designated trade and exhibition days when companies can hire rooms and space for specific events – following proper protocols, as with any Government trade initiative,” he said. “But, needless to say, it will be entirely different when the ship is on royal duty. There will be no question of sponsorship on those occasions.”

The Guardian reports that, so far, the project has received pledges of £10 million ($15 million) from two anonymous Canadian businessmen.

From all reports, it’s especially important to everyone involved that the yacht be built in the UK, in order to showcase Britain’s strength and industry.

“From Trafalgar to the Falklands, Britain’s global influence has been built on our strength at sea,” said Former Labour security minister Lord West. “This bold, imaginative project can only help to reinvigorate our standing in the world.”

Not everyone, however, is so sanguine.

Arthur Edwards, the royal photographer for The Sun, argues that the Queen doesn’t even want the yacht, despite reports that the Palace has been consulted and approves of the privately funded option.

Edwards photographed the Queen as she famously wept at the decommissioning of the Royal Britannia.

It was, he says, “the only time I have seen the Queen shed a tear.”

If private donors really gave all the money for the construction and upkeep, Edwards says, and there were “no strings attached,” that would be “commendable.”

“But the Queen,” he insists, “would hate any show of decadence.”

“The Queen did love Britannia,” he says. “But she cares too much about her people to want to put on a show of opulence in these difficult financial times.”

In a column in The Scotsman headlined “Time to sink the whole idea of a royal yacht,” Emma Cowing says she doesn’t really care whether public or private money is being used to build it.

“It is a shameless, irresponsible idea, in a time of austerity, to build a yacht that will only ever be enjoyed by the already overly-privileged few, while the majority of the population struggle to make ends meet,” she writes.

And while she thinks the Queen’s achievements are amazing, Cowing asks, “can’t someone just buy her a big box of chocolates and be done with it?”

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By Paul Hechinger