A new Britannia?

Home Affairs
Tuesday, December 20, 2016
Dr. Guy Gratton


There have been many calls over the last few years for the return of the Royal Yacht Britannia to service.  This is a tempting prospect, as the existence of a Royal Yacht has a well-established track record of promoting Britain and her industries, providing a platform for international diplomacy, as well of course as some well earned privacy and leisure for Her Majesty and the extended Royal Family.

The specific proposal is, however, flawed.  Not because the concept of a Royal Yacht is poor – it is excellent, but because the specific ship is old, was a burden upon the Royal Navy to support for the latter part of her service, and at best was designed for that role as it existed in the 1950s, not the 2010s to 2040s.  Her role since retiring in 1997 as a tourist attraction for visitors to Edinburgh is appropriate, and shouldn’t be interrupted now.

However, what the lack of a current Britannia offers is an opportunity to help Britain solve three large and significant problems.  Firstly, Britain has a problem with the management of large military procurement projects – Sir John Parker’s recent report into British military shipbuilding highlighted the risks associated with modern high technology ships using traditional and arguably outdated methods, as for example did Philip Hammond’s 2013 announcements regarding the Queen Elizabeth Class Aircraft Carriers.  Secondly, Britain has a substantial skill deficiency in the management of the design and construction of ultra complex engineering artefacts – as evidenced by the need to go to France and China for support in the creation of Hinkley Point and the numerous delays in the delivery of the new Queen Elizabeth Class Aircraft Carriers.  Third, Britain has a continuous lack of highly skilled engineers and technicians – in particular young engineers who have experience working on high quality projects: this is a skillset vital to future national prosperity.

So, here is a proposition.  Yes, of course there should be an 84th HMY Britannia – but a new one.  This ship should be an entirely British illustration of what Britain is capable of achieving in the management and delivery of high technology projects, capable of showcasing our national genius worldwide – as well as serving the same important roles filled by her predecessors.

But this should not be a straightforward commissioning of a new naval vessel – of course Britain is capable of doing that right now, and a ship of this nature can be relatively straightforward, and is certainly within the capabilities of shipyards such as at Birkenhead and Rosyth.  However, given that there is not an urgent need for a new Britannia, this presents Britain with a unique opportunity.  Such a ship could be created at the centre of a project to create a new national leadership in High Value Design, whilst at the same time providing opportunities in collaboration with universities, colleges and learned institutions across the UK to train a whole generation of world leading engineers and technicians, who can go on to lead a massive range of projects for many years after – and help drive much needed economic growth. 

This will of course also make the new HMY Britannia very much a national asset, and it is easy to envisage a whole cadre of industrial leaders 40 years hence boasting of the skills learned as they designed and built the Royal Yacht, and using professional networks stretching back to that time.  Perhaps it can also share technology with the as yet unseen new Type 31e Frigate, and between them promote a new era of exported British ships?

The importance of these things shouldn’t be underestimated – in my field of Aerospace there have been such networks in the UK from the creation of Concorde, and in the USA from the Space Programme: between them these have left the USA and Britain with the world’s two largest aerospace industries.  But, a society needs series of such programmes to produce successive generations of industrial leaders.  In engineering generally, and shipbuilding more specifically, a new Royal Yacht provides such an opportunity.

And, post-Brexit, there will be no requirement to include foreign nationals in this – it can be an entirely British project, with an entirely British education and supply chain behind it.  Of course, that would probably be undesirable, as particularly a proportion of selected young professionals from across Europe and particularly the commonwealth would also provide an international dimension both to the ship, and to the future networks of engineering professionals that benefit both international relations, and Britain’s role as a respected centre of global industry and education.  But, inclusion of non-Brits can then be enabled on that basis, not on the basis of any unwanted state building concept of EU unity, as has essentially underlain a lot of laws about movement of labour over the last 40 years.

In summary, yes, there should be a future Royal Yacht Britannia, but no, it should not be a resurrection of the existing ship, nor should it be unambitious.  A future, high technology British designed and built ship could help British re-establish a much needed lead in High Value Design, support the education of much needed engineering professionals, and create a future national network of industrial leaders both in Britain, but overseas and friendly to Britain.  Such a project is likely to be expensive and likely to take a long time to design and build – but the benefits would be enormous and felt for over a generation.

Dr. Guy Gratton is a Chartered Engineer, and a Bow Group Member.