Britain’s vote to leave the European Union has revived a strong move inside the Conservative Party to bring back the glory of empire — and the royal yacht.
LONDON — Once upon a time, in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, there was a royal yacht, upon which Her Majesty the Queen, Elizabeth II, who also reigns over Canada, Australia and New Zealand and heads the Commonwealth, would sail upon the waters.
The royal yacht, Britannia, 412 feet long and 139 feet tall, was launched in 1953 and traveled more than 1 million nautical miles.
Alas, the yacht proved expensive to maintain, and while the Conservative Party had promised to replace Britannia, the Labour Party won the 1997 general election and decommissioned it, in a ceremony that led the queen to shed public tears.
The yacht remains, in its glory, a tourist attraction in Edinburgh, where in a more commercial age it is also available to rent for private dinners and social events.
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But with Britain’s vote in June to leave the European Union (EU), a decision known as “Brexit,” there is a strong move inside the Conservative Party to bring back the glory of empire — and the royal yacht.
“I think we have to ask ourselves what sort of Britain we want to live in and what we can do,” Jake Berry, a lawmaker, said in Parliament last week, “to make Britain great again.” His answer? “If Brexit is going to mean successful Brexit, it should also mean the return of our royal yacht!”
The Conservative benches loudly murmured approval, and about 100 Tory lawmakers supported the motion, roughly the same number who fiercely backed Brexit before the referendum, giving former Prime Minister David Cameron fits.
Many of them have dreams of a wholly sovereign Britain with all the old symbols of this island nation’s empire, when “Britannia ruled the waves”: the royal yacht, the old dark-blue British passport, the supreme power of Parliament. And even though the Brexit supporters won, they remain combative, suspicious that Cameron’s successor, Theresa May, who quietly opposed Brexit, will somehow betray them. And they have no intention of giving up in their desire for a clear break with Brussels.
With the same small majority in Parliament, May is thus as vulnerable to intraparty parliamentary pressure as Cameron was. If the vote was meant to “reclaim” full British and parliamentary sovereignty from those supposedly faceless Brussels bureaucrats, these same lawmakers argue, May should consult them on every aspect of Britain’s negotiating position with the EU.
That she is refusing to do, even as the pound has dropped considerably amid the uncertainty about Britain’s economic future. May has said she will invoke Article 50, signaling Britain’s formal notice of withdrawal from the EU, by the end of March, beginning a two-year negotiation with the other 27 member states. But many in her own party want Parliament to approve even that decision, not just the government’s negotiating stance.
“I and many others did not exercise our vote in the referendum so as to restore the sovereignty of this Parliament only to see what we regarded as the tyranny of the European Union replaced by that of a government,” said Stephen Phillips, a Conservative.
May insists that to have successful negotiations, she must maintain a kind of radio silence and not provide “running commentary” on the talks. For that reason, she says, she will not ask Parliament to vote on invoking Article 50, and the High Court held hearings Thursday in a lawsuit testing the constitutionality of her position. She will have to secure Parliament’s approval for any final deal.
May did agree, in what was widely labeled a concession, to let Conservative lawmakers vote for a debate on Brexit called for by the opposition Labour Party, while emphasizing that Parliament should not “undermine the negotiating position of the government.”
Whatever that turns out to be.
At the moment, there is no plan, just a set of arguments and political positioning. And there is little reference yet to the views and interests of Europe outside Britain, with which Britain will finally have to negotiate, once it finishes negotiating with itself.
Along with a 17 percent drop in the pound against the dollar since the July vote, inflation is beginning to rise and banks are talking openly about moving their headquarters out of London to remain in the EU. In this atmosphere of anxiety among business leaders and foreign exchanges, May’s silence on substance disguises another of her problems: fierce divisions within her own government about what negotiating position to take.
Despite her quiet opposition to Brexit, she publicly endorsed the referendum and put three prominent Brexit supporters in charge of crucial ministries. For the most part, like their parliamentary supporters, they are pressing for a “hard Brexit,” a clean break with the EU that would end unlimited migration from Europe to Britain and give up membership in the single market or even a customs union with the rest of the bloc.
But other ministers, including Philip Hammond, the powerful Chancellor of the Exchequer, are eager to preserve Britain as an area of free trade and protect the economy’s services sector, which represents about 80 percent of Britain’s gross domestic product (GDP).
Financial services alone — dominated by the City of London, the capital’s financial district — represent 10 percent of GDP and a large share of government tax receipts, and already some large banks and investment houses are discussing alternatives to London to preserve their access to the EU.
Paris, Frankfurt and Dublin are not-so-quietly jostling for what many believe will be a sustained slow bleed from London, but well-paid bankers are wary of France’s high taxes and consider the night life of Dublin and Frankfurt far too dull. Some think New York will be the ultimate beneficiary.
France, Germany firm
While some favoring Brexit suggest that German carmakers, for instance, will seek duty-free status for Britain in any future deal, Britain is largely postindustrial, with trade in goods representing only about 20 percent of the economy.
But to maintain some access to the single market would almost surely mean continuing to pay into the budget of the EU and probably accepting a high degree of free movement of European citizens, which Brexit supporters would regard as betrayal.
The leaders of France and Germany have made it clear that Britain will not emerge with a better deal after voting to leave the union.
And Chancellor Angela Merkel said Germany won’t drop its insistence that Britain can only enjoy full access to the EU’s internal market if it allows free immigration of EU citizens.
Merkel said Saturday that making concessions on free labor movement would create a dangerous free-for-all in the EU. She added that, although Britain is dear to Europe and she regrets its decision to leave the bloc, “We cannot work toward ultimately putting into question the whole European Union.”
And in Paris last week, President François Hollande of France insisted: “There must be a threat, there must be a risk, there must be a price. Otherwise we will be in a negotiation that cannot end well.”
Trying to calm financial markets, May’s aides say the prime minister has not ruled out anything.
Janan Ganesh, a columnist for The Financial Times, summed up the situation on Twitter: “There’s no plan. Each panic-inducing remark gets toned down. May as well ask your cat.”