Storm of controversy engulfs royal yacht proposal

The last royal yacht was decommissioned in 1997. It would cost £60 million to replace © Getty Images

A politician has proposed that the UK should make a £60 million gift to its Queen. In such tough times, many will disagree, but is there something to be said for extravagance?

The world economy is stagnating, jobs are being slashed and years of grim austerity lie ahead. And yet, three examples of breathtaking extravagance have hit the headlines. First, there was the tuna fish that was sold at auction to sushi-lovers for an astonishing £470,000. Then came news that celebrities at last night’s Golden Globes award ceremony were fed a free desert containing actual gold.

Finally, there was a radical suggestion from the UK’s education secretary Michael Gove. In spite of the tough times, he said, Britain should consider making a special gift to the Queen. What did he have in mind? A new royal yacht. Estimated cost? Sixty million pounds – more than an average NHS nurse would earn if he worked for the next two thousand years.

The proposal has caused shock and outrage now, but this sort of wild spending, whether by governments or private citizens, has a long history. Renaissance nobles spent fortunes on fine art. Mediaeval knights held elaborate tournaments while peasants starved. Byzantine emperors invested in golden nightingales and water-powered thrones. Roman senators feasted on larks’ tongues and dried jellyfish while their slaves toiled in the fields.

But the prize for extravagance, perhaps, should go to the pharaohs of Egypt. These monarchs deployed years of labour from thousands of their subjects in the service of one of history’s strangest projects: the construction, in the middle of the desert, of a series of vast and entirely useless piles of stone – the pyramids.

As the centuries have rolled by, popular movements have arisen in an attempt to curb the perceived excesses of the super-rich. First came the Protestant reformation, in which the grandeur of Catholic cathedrals was rejected in favour of a more everyday sort of worship, encouraging a simple life of modest and sober toil.

Then there was communism, the ultimate attempt to create perfect equality. The best society, said the communists, would be one in which everyone had exactly the same things.

Reason not the need

Some today would say that the communists were onto something. Is it not disgraceful and decadent, they say, to spend more on a watch or a bottle of wine than a working man earns in a decade? Shouldn’t those who live lives of extreme luxury be ashamed?

But extravagance has its defenders too. How boring the world would be, they exclaim, if it was all sober and sensible and average! ‘Reason not the need’, says Shakespeare’s King Lear. Going beyond the merely necessary is what makes us different from animals. Great extravagances produce great art, great food, great architecture, great music – like fireworks, they cast a beautiful light on the flat, dull land below.

You Decide

  1. Should the Queen be given a new royal yacht?
  2. Would society be better if extravagance was banned?

Activities

  1. Write a list of the top five most luxurious items you can find online. Do you think they are worth what they cost?
  2. Read the full text of King Lear’s ‘reason not the need’ speech. What do you think it means? Do you agree?

Some People Say...

“The simple life is more pleasurable than a life of luxury.”

What do you think?

Q & A

So I could end up paying for the Queen’s new yacht?
The yacht will be funded by private donors, not by the taxpayer – although that was the plan at one stage. Still, the principle is important.
Really?
All societies have debates over how wealth should be divided and how wealth should be spent. In some countries, there is a strong feeling that it is important not to be flashy or extravagant. In others, ‘conspicuous consumption’ is all the rage. That affects a whole culture.
And what is this ‘reason not the need’ quote?
It’s from the playKing Lear. The King says we should be allowed more than just what we need. Without some luxuries, he says, ‘man’s life is as cheap as beast’s.’

Word Watch

Sushi
Sushi is a popular Japanese snack food, made of rice and raw fish, especially salmon or tuna. It is a prized delicacy, and full-sized tuna fish regularly sell for hundreds of thousands of pounds.
Byzantine
The Byzantine empire, based around the city of Constantinople (modern Istanbul), flourished from the Fifth to the Fifteenth Centuries AD. Visitors to the Byzantine court were astonished by the works of art and craftsmanship they found there.
Pyramids
Huge monumental stone structures in Egypt, built as burial places for the country’s monarchs, or Pharaohs. The pyramids took teams of thousands – perhaps even hundreds of thousands – of craftsmen and slaves years to build.
Communism
A political philosophy that argues for the redistribution of wealth, the state ownership of all businesses and radical equalising of society.