Full Steam Ahead for a Queen

Some Brits think royals deserve a new yacht

Britain's Queen Elizabeth II is to have a new luxury royal yacht after all, but her government and its political foes are arguing over who should foot the 60-million ($100 million) bill.

In 1995, Prime Minister John Major decided the current yacht, Britannia, is just too expensive to operate and should be sold.

Ever since, politicians have been steamed up over what, if anything, should replace the plush "floating palace" that has sailed more than a million miles (equal to 40 times round the world) and has taken the monarch and other royals to nearly 100 countries.

Last week, to the surprise of many, including the Labour opposition, Defense Minister Michael Portillo announced that a new ship will indeed be built and that taxpayers will bear the cost.

Labour opposition spokesmen warn that, if elected to office at the looming general election, they might not agree to fund the new ship out of taxes. "Why not ask private enterprise to pay for it?" asked Labour spokesman David Clark.

Buckingham Palace issued a bland statement saying the queen is "pleased."

British monarchs have enjoyed royal yachts for centuries. The current vessel, Britannia, commissioned in 1953, is widely seen as an icon of royalty. As such, it has become enmeshed in a debate about the future of the monarchy itself.

The question has been asked whether the heavy cost of building and maintaining a ship for the exclusive use of the queen is any longer justifiable.

Britannia weighs in at 5,769 tons. Its 200-plus crew wear plimsolls to minimize noise when members of the royal family are aboard. They give and receive orders via hand signals for the same reason.

When US Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf was shown the ship's turbines a few years ago, he said: "OK, I've seen the museum piece. Now where's the engine room?"

Anyone invited aboard the royal yacht can admire knick-knacks that include a solid gold camel sheltering under a solid gold palm tree - a gift to the queen from the ruler of Dubai in 1979.

Mr. Portillo has said that the new yacht, due to go into service in 2002 (the queen's golden jubilee), will be smaller than Britannia, which is 412 feet long.

For her part the queen has let it be known that she wants it to be spacious enough to make room for a mahogany dining table seating 56 guests.

By springing a surprise on Labour, Portillo was sailing through dangerous political waters. By convention, any government moves involving the royal family are supposed to be discussed with the opposition before an announcement is made. Portillo ignored the convention.

Ironically, the ruling Conservatives have tried to mobilize private enterprise in many areas of state activity. On this occasion, however, it is Labour that finds itself arguing that private industry should pay for a new yacht.

Conservative Member of Parliament Terry Dicks is one of a handful of government supporters who are against the Portillo plan. "If the queen wants a royal yacht, she should dip into her own pockets and find the money - she probably has more money than all the MPs put together," Mr. Dicks said. "I have got no time for these parasites in the royal family sponging off the rest of us."

The Conservative Daily Telegraph, under a heading "Waverers overruled," said: "The vessel inspires affection because it is seen to belong to the entire nation, rather than sectional interests." It added: "This is no pleasure craft for a merry monarch."

But the politically uncommitted Independent said the move was an attempt by the government to win the support of royalists at the general election.

Ship designers have already leapt to their drawing boards.

One plan being pushed calls for a sleek launch-style vessel. Another is for a three-masted sailing ship that could be used for sea-cadet training while the queen is on dry land.

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