Should Queen Elizabeth be a 'have-yacht' among have-nots?

Reports that a British government official proposed that the royal yacht for Queen Elizabeth be funded with public money has stirred up anger in a time of austerity.

Suzanne Plunkett/Reuters/File
Britain's Queen Elizabeth and Prince Edward arrive for a Christmas Day service at St Mary Magdalene Church on the Royal estate at Sandringham, Norfolk in east England, December 2011. Does Queen Elizabeth need or deserve a new royal yacht to mark her 60th year on the throne?

It’s the other big boat story this week: Does Queen Elizabeth need or deserve a new royal yacht to mark her 60th year on the throne? The debate is hotting up, with Prime Minister David Cameron sailing into rough seas of opinion after supporting the idea, despite an epic year of job loss and austerity in the United Kingdom.

Cameron’s Liberal Democrat coalition partner Nick Clegg, who has been pushing “tax the rich” schemes of late, told reporters it was a debate about “haves and have-yachts.”

In a memo this fall, Education Secretary Michael Gove floated the idea of funding a $125 million yacht with Britain's public funds. Mr. Gove, a staunch monarchist, was worried that her majesty’s Diamond Jubilee could be overshadowed by the 2012 Olympic Games to be held in London. 

The proposed vessel would replace the former royal yacht Britannia, whose decommissioning in 2006 caused a famous tear from Queen Elizabeth. 

The notion of using public funds to buy a yacht for one of the world’s richest women in the midst of a dire economic climate was quickly scotched by Mr. Cameron, who favors private financing for the idea. 

Prince Charles supported the plan

British newspaper The Guardian broke the story about Gove's suggestion that public funds be used for the gift and later reported that Prince Charles and a prominent rear admiral supported the plan. (In an article today headlined "Britannia CAN rule the waves!" The Daily Mail –  a major proponent of the project and often of the monarchy – rejected the claims that Gove had proposed public funding.)

Since the Guardian broke the story and the government made strong reassurances that the project would not receive public funding, the charity behind the plan has set out to campaign for private donations instead.

Plans for the yacht to be turned into a self-financing training and instructional vessel are in the works, should the proposal pan out. However, potential donors say it is still unclear how much of the upkeep, security, staff, and other often hidden expenses of large vessels will cost the public. 

Queen Elizabeth is still going strong in her Diamond Jubilee year, and has achieved a singular level of popularity among ordinary Brits that is helping the monarchy and the damaged reputation of the royal family, says Nick Spencer of Theos, a public theology think tank.

“But this is very badly timed,” says Mr. Spencer.

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