Monday, 31 May 2021

Flags, boats and status symbols


There are some circumstances when doing something unique which no-one has done before can be a stroke of brilliance, but it’s much more commonly the case that there are good reasons why no-one has done it before. Certainly, taking a brief pause between that flash of inspiration and moving forward with the implementation provides an opportunity to at least ask, before committing resources to a project, exactly why no-one else has tried it before. That is generally a sensible question to which there are likely to be some very sensible answers. So when Boris Johnson referred to the proposed replacement for the royal yacht with the words “This new national flagship will be the first vessel of its kind in the world, reflecting the UK’s burgeoning status as a great, independent maritime trading nation”, my first thought was to wonder why it would be the first of its kind (closely followed by wondering how the word ‘burgeoning’ could be realistically applied to the trade of a state busily downgrading its most important trade links).

Although being presented as a replacement for the former royal yacht, it’s actually a government boat, which would only be made available to royals when they’re on government business, and the royals themselves already seem to be trying to distance themselves from Johnson’s latest flight of fantasy. The claim is that the new boat (the price of which has already doubled from £100 million to £200 million since Johnson first started promoting the idea) would be “…used to host trade fairs, ministerial summits and diplomatic talks as the UK seeks to build links and boost exports following Brexit.” Whilst it’s easy to see how it might appeal to those who regret the end of British gunboat diplomacy, it’s harder to see what it actually means in practice. If the UK wants to persuade another country to offer it preferential trading terms, why would it believe that asking that other country’s negotiators to meet on UK territory in the form of a boat in one of their ports is more likely to be successful than actually meeting on that other country’s territory in its seat of government? It sounds like just another expression of that strange English exceptionalism, which assumes that lesser countries (i.e. everybody else) look up to the UK and will be suitably impressed by a big boat with lots of flags on it. Are ministers visiting those other countries really going to spend a week or so sailing there, or are they actually going to send the boat along first and then fly out to join a floating palace which may well be berthed some distance away from the capital (New Delhi, for example, is well over 1000 km from the sea)?

Like most of Johnson’s grand schemes, it looks to have been poorly thought through, and to be more about flying union flags semi-aggressively in the ports of other countries than about twenty-first century trade or diplomacy. It’s a status symbol rather than a practical approach to building links, but any state which needs an expensive status symbol to boost the ego and self-image of its rulers is a state which is already failing.


dafis said...

Yet another idea best filed under "fantasy vanity projects", unless of course the Fat Boy plans on turning his hand to global grand tours after he's bounced out of office ( possibly by his own crazy party !

Spirit of BME said...

I fear it`s just another ‘Toys for the boys, but as expensive as the two aircraft carriers.