By Jeremy Hutton, Policy Analyst
Proposals to commission a new royal yacht have been common in recent years, spearheaded by a Daily Telegraph campaign that began in 2016. The proposal has attracted support from a variety of political and public figures, including the likes of William Hague, Michael Gove, Liam Fox, Princes Philip and Andrew (fancy that!), Jeremy Hunt, Penny Mordaunt and even Boris Johnson himself.
For some, the idea of a new royal yacht conjures up picturesque visions of the royal standard fluttering as the ship sails the seven seas, hosting events, transporting royals and signing trade deals. One former trade minister recently said that a new yacht would be “one of the biggest morale boosts you could have” for a country fed up with being locked up for several months. How, exactly, a £100 million royal yacht (that could take years to procure and build) would cheer up the hard-pressed and overtaxed families of Britain amidst a pandemic isn’t clear.
The latest proposal, by former defence and international development secretary, and current paymaster general, Penny Mordaunt, calls for the foreign aid budget to be used to fund, not a single £100 million vessel, but two - at a cost of £150 million each. Apparently, the vessels could be misleadingly classified as offices of the department for international development.
The TaxPayers’ Alliance is usually very open to ideas for using the wasteful and bloated foreign aid budget better. If you’re going to have a daft 0.7% target, money should be spent as efficiently as possible. In our report from last year, for example, we called for aid funds to be used in fighting piracy and counter-narcotics operations. In March, we called for aid funds to be redirected to help the domestic effort against the coronavirus crisis. However, using the aid budget to send diplomats and royals on jollies to host cocktail parties would be nothing short of an insult to hardworking taxpayers, who would derive so little benefit from money spent in this way.
There is scant evidence that it would be useful for either the provision of aid or boost British trade interests. Popular claims that HMY Britannia contributed to the signing of £3 billion in trade deals in the early 1990s abound, though they don’t hold up to much scrutiny. Alok Sharma certainly didn’t think so when he was a foreign office minister: “There is no evidence that the yacht made a difference to the trade deals secured in these years and this level of use would not represent a good return on investment.”
In fairness, many of the earlier proposals included the caveat that a royal yacht should be at least partially funded by the private sector, if not in full. Furthermore, a proposal for the vessel to serve as a training platform for sailors could ameliorate concerns that a new yacht would further stretch strained Royal Navy manpower. Turning to the non-negotiable 0.7% aid budget is just the latest in the long line of gimmicks to justify an unnecessary new regal pleasure cruiser.
The aid budget should not be used as a piggy bank for the government to raid whenever they want to waste money self-indulgently. The TaxPayers’ Alliance has never approved of setting the foreign aid budget at a fixed amount. The 0.7% target is completely arbitrary and creates the misconception that it is how much you spend that counts, not how you spend it. In reality, the target is little more than state-sanctioned virtue signalling. This case illustrates that fact. If the government really sees the aid budget as something to be exploited to pay for projects it cannot otherwise justify, then it just further highlights why the target must be scrapped.
With the economy on the brink, if the government really wants to do taxpayers a favour and save some foreign aid cash, then they should scrap the 0.7 per cent target, put the money into front-line services, or better still, deliver Britons some much needed tax cuts. Contrary to popular belief, there’s nothing stopping them, and it would be a much better option than blowing millions on a royal yacht.