Britannia ruled the waves

How many people does it take to arrange a picnic on a beach?

300, apparently, if the beach is in the Western Isles of Scotland, if the people having the picnic were the Royal Family, and if they got there using the Royal Yacht Britannia.

I was brought up by royalists; my great grandmother wouldn’t let taxis take her down the Cromwell Road. But logic and atheism pull me towards republicanism these days, more-so now than ever after visiting HMY Britannia yesterday. I should have taken photographs, sorry about that.

Bedrooms and bunk beds

The strongest images I took away were of the stark comparisons between the bedrooms of the Queen and Prince Philip, looking like rooms in a rather old fashioned country house hotel, but palatial compared with the grey below-decks quarters of the “yoties”, folding bunks stacked three high in dormitories sleeping dozen or so men who had no more than a locker each for their possessions…. well it made me feel very republican, so it did.  And apparently they slept in hammocks up until 1973.

The Queen's bedroom on HMY Britannia - © Copyright Alan Findlay and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

The Queen’s bedroom on HMY Britannia – © Copyright Alan Findlay and licensed for reuse under a Creative Commons Licence.

That said, yachtsmen volunteered. they were members of the navy or the marines, and some served for up to 20 years on Britannia, one for 34 years, so no-one was coerced. But even so.

There were rules to ease social awkwardness

The crew were to be as unobtrusive as possible, and if a Yachtsman did encounter a member of the Royal Family, he had to stand still and look straight ahead until they had passed. – Britannia: Life below decks

This was common in aristocratic households where servants were required to turn to face the wall if they were seen by a member of the Family. It serves to enforce the hierarchy of course, but it also saves all that awkward social interaction too, preserving the illusion of privacy.

Quite extraordinary.

The argument was that Britannia acted as a floating embassy.

State rooms in the Royal Yacht Britannia © Copyright Alan Findlay and licensed for reuse under a Creative Commons Licence.

State rooms in the Royal Yacht Britannia © Copyright Alan Findlay and licensed for reuse under a Creative Commons Licence.

But it only needed the state rooms for that, not the Royal Family’s bed rooms, sitting rooms, sun lounge and private sun deck.

Whose money?

Britannia was paid for out of the defence budget, and when members of the Royal Family were aboard it was accompanied by ships of the line. While Blair’s act in pulling the financial plug can be read as spiteful, it was rational and it wasn’t petty. Britannia cost £11m a year to run, and a new ship would have been hundreds of millions to build. I’ve no objection to the Royal Family paying for their own floating palace, I do object to them free-loading with the defense budget though.

What’s she for, exactly?

We are always told soothingly that the Queen is a constitutional monarch and has no real power, all she does is sign bills into law. In which case why does she need such fancy bedrooms, palaces and such? What is in those Red Boxes we are told she works so hard on every day? What the hell are we paying her for?

Maybe it’s because she does exercise real power. And this raises the real question: by what right does she exercise that power? Who elected her?


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