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The untold story of the Royal Yacht Britannia

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Not only does Prime Minister Cameron demonstrate a most peculiar sense of priorities in backing the building of a new Royal Yacht for the Queen, during a time of economic austerity, he probably has no idea what the real purpose of the last Royal Yacht was.

Back in the mid 1950s the British government faced an interesting problem. Thanks to the work of Alan Turing and many others at Bletchley Park, HMG had broken not only the Enigma code but many other mechanical ciphers.

Mechanical cipher machines were in common use around the world until electronic systems started to replace them in the mid 1970s. The astute will note that the decline in CIA organized coups d'état coincides with the introduction of electronic machines.

From the end of World War II until the mid 1970s, the only acceptably secure form of diplomatic communication as far as the UK, US and Russia were concerned was the use of a true one-time-pad. This is a cipher system that requires the sender and receiver of the message to have previously exchanged a random sequence of data known as keystream. The security of the system comes from the fact that any given cipher text could have been generated by any possible plaintext with absolutely equal probability.

The practical disadvantage of this approach is that to transmit a 100Kb message using a one time pad requires 100Kb of keystream. Equipping the embasies with the necessary keystream created a logistical nightmare, particularly once it was known that the KGB knew that the UK had broken the Enigma cipher and were employing One Time Pads. The British had to securely distribute keystream to their embassies and governorships around the world without giving their colonies and former colonies any idea as to what might be going on.

Despite the continued post war rationing, HMG commissioned a new Royal Yacht, Britannia, which was launched in 1954. While the British public were assured that this was merely the continuation of a longstanding tradition, this was demonstrably false. Elizabeth's father had simply borrowed the use of a Naval warship for foreign trips which were themselves a novelty. Like US presidents prior to FDR, British monarchs were expected to remain on hand close to the seat of power in case they were needed.

Two yachts had been built at taxpayer expense for the use of Queen Victoria, but the justification for those purchases had been the 'need' to compete with the Russian Tzar and the German Kaiser. By the time Britannia was launched, Britain no longer had an empire, and there were no crowned heads in Russia or Germany to compete with.

Britannia then spent the next several decades clocking up a million miles as it 'flew the flag' around the world hosting parties and receptions at each point of call to which nearby ambassadors, consuls and other senior embassy staff could attend without attracting the slightest hint of suspicion.

Is this something Britain really needs to spend nearly $100 million on, while the rest of the country is undergoing a rather painful austerity?

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