A yacht not fit for a queen
Her Majesty Elizabeth the Second, by the Grace of God, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and of Her other Realms and Territories, Queen, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith … is in want of a yacht.
She had one, the Royal Yacht Britannia, which she loved very much. When the Labour government of Tony Blair said it was too expensive and decommissioned it soon after assuming office in 1997, she was seen to weep at the ceremony. Last year, Blair was reported as saying he regretted the decision, pressed upon him by the then-chancellor, Gordon Brown, and inherited from the previous, Conservative administration. It cost £11 million a year to run, and a necessary refit would have cost some £50 million. So it was put out to the nautical equivalent of pasture. It’s now on show at a dock in Leith, the port of Scotland’s capital, Edinburgh, where it’s in much demand as a venue for “occasions.”
If in want of a yacht, Queen Elizabeth has never lacked for gallant courtiers. Michael Gove, the secretary of state for education, earlier this month wrote to the prime minister suggesting that for her Diamond Jubilee, to be celebrated in June this year, she should be promised (the event is too near for her to be “given”) a replacement yacht, to express the love her subjects bear her. After a little to-ing and fro-ing, Gove clarified that he had not meant that the expense – which might be some £80 million to £100 million – should be borne from the public purse, but rather would be raised from her (presumably better-heeled) admirers. The prime minister said he was all for it, on that basis. The deputy prime minister, Liberal Democrat Nick Clegg, made a not-too-bad joke, saying the world was divided into the “yachts and the have-yachts.”
This is a storm in a royal teacup, to be sure: The money may not be raised, the yacht never built. Already, a grand river pageant is planned for June 3, when the Diamond Jubilee will be celebrated with a four-day weekend holiday for all. The star of that show will be a luxury river boat, the Spirit of Chartwell, transformed by the film set designer Joseph Bennett into a gilded, garlanded royal barge. Bennett did the sets for the grandiose TV series Rome, so he may have had in mind the lines heralding Cleopatra’s watery arrival to meet her lover, the Roman general Antony, in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra: “The barge she sat in, like a burnish’d throne, Burn’d on the water.”
Is not the barge enough? It will cost £10 million, the cost to be met by private sponsorship and donations. Are there enough generous royalists left after that to put up some £80 million to £100 million for a yacht?
Even if there are, it’s a bad idea. Gove, a former journalist and one of the sharpest minds in the British Cabinet, has allowed his affection for the queen to nudge him into making a rare presentational mistake. The queen should not have a yacht — and it is the royalists who should be most concerned that she should not.
First, it puts her among the superrich. She is, indeed, very rich: Her fortune is estimated at just under £2 billion, which makes her the 19th wealthiest woman in the world and the second richest woman monarch (after Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands, who tops £2 billion). But her style, her activities and above all her public relations have kept her removed from the yacht set – a set led by a near neighbor of hers, who lives a mile or so west of Buckingham Palace and who owns the Chelsea soccer team. Roman Abramovich’s Eclipse, the largest yacht in the world (557 feet) and the most expensive (nearly £1 billion) is one of four he has, the Eclipse having two swimming pools, two helicopter pads and a small submarine. Abramovich was embroiled till last week in an effort to strike down a suit against him from former fellow oligarch Boris Berezovsky. He has just lost his bid to defeat the suit, and so the substantive case will go to a full trial in October. The sight of these two enormously wealthy men, whose riches were torn from an impoverished country, brawling over billions is at once fascinating and melancholy. The queen shouldn’t join that class.
Second, though her popularity is likely to reach such levels in this year that she will easily ride out any criticism, she will, at some time not too distant, hand over the crown, voluntarily or necessarily, to her son, Prince Charles. (Presuming the crown does not skip a generation and go her grandson, Prince William, who is so far a somewhat colorless man but whose elegant wife, Kate, is lionized by the press and has made no mistakes.) Prince Charles is no longer as unpopular as he was when his first wife, Princess Diana, died: but he’s not popular, either, and his occupancy of a super-yacht while he tells the world it must conserve energy or die will be a constant, legitimate source of a charge of hypocrisy.
Third, there are a host of better things on which to spend £100 million, especially in these dark days. Some pointers.
- A network of Queen Elizabeth II centers for the young, in which those finding it hard (if not impossible) to get work can go for counseling, work experience, volunteering at home and abroad, training, and networking. Assuming that the money comes from corporations and rich individuals, these could remain associated with the centers, forging links between the workless and workplaces; while the wealthy should be encouraged to experiment with ideas of how to provide broader perspectives to the unemployed than joyless leisure.
- The same for the aging: in this case, to propose ways in which the healthy elderly can continue to make contributions to society and their own well-being; to point to further education and other courses that engage the mind and body; and to encourage a spirit of solidarity and neighborliness. As with the centers for young people, other institutions work in the same area. But this would carry the prestige of the queen’s name and would have her patronage – which counts for much, especially among the older generations.
- A fund to help make the royal properties – principally Balmoral Castle in the Highlands of Scotland, Holyrood Palace in Edinburgh, Windsor Castle and above all Buckingham Palace in the center of London itself – much more open to the public than they are now. The queen, or at least her successor, should take the initiative to considerably downsize the monarchy, moving the royal family to the still large Central London properties of Clarence House (where Prince Charles lives when in London) or St. James Palace (Princess Anne’s London home). To be sure, visiting heads of state will no longer be housed in Buckingham Palace: so what? Clarence House and St. James’ Palace have guest rooms. If there are entourage problems, some of the grandest hotels in the world — the Ritz, Claridges, the Savoy – are not far away. Buckingham Palace should be a national resource: everything from a history lesson to a business tool (one of the ostensible reasons for the yacht).
The grandeur of the British royals will fade as Elizabeth goes. It’s best to recognize and plan for it now. A yacht, with a life of decades, will come to seem more and more inappropriate, and less and less attuned to a country where the issues of work, poverty and ignorance remain to be tackled and moderated. To assist in that work would be a legacy fit for a queen.
PHOTO: Britain’s Queen Elizabeth arrives for a Christmas Day service at St. Mary Magdalene Church on the Royal estate at Sandringham, Norfolk in east England, December 25, 2011. REUTERS/Suzanne Plunkett