I USED TO live upstairs from an elderly gentleman who looked after my cat when I went on holiday. It was a simple arrangement: he ran the daily gauntlet of the fur-covered ball of claws that resided in my flat armed with a can of KiteKat and a pair of gardening gloves, and I repaid him in large boxes of chocolate.
He was a pensioner who lived on his own, and although he insisted that he enjoyed the company of the spiky little quadruped, there was – as he was always upfront in telling me – an ulterior motive for his cat-sitting. “It’s because you,” he told me, “are the only person who buys me presents.”
I thought of this particular gentleman the other day when I read that there is a government-backed campaign in place to give Britain’s most famous pensioner a very big present indeed. Plans are afoot for the Queen to be gifted an £80 million yacht to mark this year’s diamond jubilee – and presumably to make up for the fact that in 1997 those nasty Labour politicians took away her last one, tied it up in Leith and allowed the general public to start tramping all over it.
As I remember, there was an awful lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth, mainly from the upper echelons of society, when the Royal Yacht Britannia was decommissioned in 1997. It was viewed as the end of an era, a symbol that the monarchy was no longer infallible, and the introduction of a dangerously meritocratic society. The rest of us – well, we just didn’t care. Why would we? Very Rich Lady No Longer Has Big Boat To Exercise Corgis On is not the sort of thing that keeps most of us awake at night.
However, I’m sure I’m not alone in thinking Government Wants To Spend Your Money On Another Big Boat For A Very Rich Lady might just be the sort of thing to capture our attention. Leaked memos from the office of Education Secretary Michael Gove suggest – an accusation that he has since denied – that he was lobbying fellow ministers to consider public funding for the yacht, and at one time, considered that public funding should be the chief option in raising money for the project. Although that suggestion has since been nixed, David Cameron has publicly thrown his support behind the plans – which will apparently also include a facility onboard to provide education and training to around 200 young people over the age of 16 for periods of three months, and a woolly-sounding “research element for scientists”.
The truth is that I do not care whether or not this new royal yacht is to be funded by “private donors and individual donations”. It is still an obscene, ostentatious and disgusting waste of money in a country where 180 pensioners die every day during the winter months, and where 65 per cent of pensioner households live in fuel poverty and must make the unbearable choice between keeping warm or eating.
It is a shameless, irresponsible idea, in a time of austerity, to build a yacht that will only ever be enjoyed by the already overly-priveleged few, while the majority of the population struggle to make ends meet.
Around £15m of the £80m necessary to build this ludicrous folly – £10m from “financial leaders in Canada” (can someone explain what exactly “promotes Britain” about Canadian finance?) and another £5m from private donors has so far been raised, but the fact that the government has publicly supported and – it seems, lobbied for it, means that it will probably be built, and high wealth investors’ money, that could have gone to so much good elsewhere, will be wasted on this national embarrassment.
And what about upkeep? It’s all very well to say that this yacht will not cost us a penny right now, but what happens a few years down the line? Will those who have made the generous donations be paying for the maintenance of this new royal yacht in 30 or 40 years’ time?
Doubtful. A more likely scenario is that I will be a pensioner, Kate and William’s grandchildren will be having all-night parties aboard, the payment will be coming out of my fuel allowance and yet another generation of this country’s people will be mired in fuel poverty, while the priveleged few carry on regardless.
The Queen is 85 years old. She has been the head of state in this country for 60 years. That is an amazing achievement. But can’t someone just buy her a big box of chocolates and be done with it?