Garden Bridge Vs. Royal Yacht: Which Is the Best Symbol of Britain's Slow Death?

And which is the biggest waste of money?

13 October 2016, 3:15pm

(Pictures by Press Association Images and Heatherwick Studio)

Britain is divided like never before: the EU referendum hasn't solidified the national will, it's cleaved the whole country into two camps of warring stereotypes. The Brexiteers, hunched over, grunting bizarrely specific racial epithets between breathy whines as a few strangled gusts seep through their overflowing nasal hair (who knew there were so many negative stereotypes about Estonians?); the Remoaners, flapping their soft and useless hands in panic as they gather together a basket of fancy French cheese and bury it in the garden against the apocalypses to come. It's barely even surprising now when the Daily Express insists that any MP who wants even the slightest Parliamentary oversight over the withdrawal process – something that was, remember, supposed to restore full sovereignty to Parliament – should be locked up in the Tower of London, presumably so all the Chinese tourists keeping the country afloat can see how a real representative democracy functions. When liberals propose annulling the referendum altogether, it's just as predictable: of course all those millions of votes don't really count; they came from the Brexit brigade, a bunch of stupid people, there's no reason why anyone should have to listen to them.

What do you do when your country is torn apart by internal divisions, approaching the brink of state failure? Declining empires throughout history have known the answer: you build something big and stupid that everyone can get behind, you externalise your contradictions into a huge slab of ornamented stone or steel, and hope nobody notices. The Romans were capping off spectacular palaces just as the barbarians arrived to slaughter everyone inside; some of the finest Hapsburg architecture was built just as the Austro-Hungarian empire' collapse was about to send all of Europe into four years of mutual mass murder. This is what the UK needs – a vast national folly, something that future historians can point to as their helicopters chatter over the irradiated wastelands that were once Britain, so the world will know that it lost something magnificent.

But Brexit cuts through everything now; the whole of reality can be divided between one of the two camps. Marmite, as recent shortages have shown, is the yeast gloop of the 48 percent, while David Davies MP is heroically tucking in (with a spoon, probably) to a big beefy jar of proud Aussie Vegemite. Modes of transportation, too; you'll rarely see a Brexiter on a bike. Red, blue, and orange are Brexity colours; the 48 percent prefer ashen grey and neutral earth tones. And the choice for our Great British Tombstone is no different. Two stupid and pointless projects, for a Garden Bridge in London and a shiny new boat for the Queen, are clawing at the public purse.

The Garden Bridge: a Muddy Pontoon for the Remoaners

If you really want to understand why the Remain camp lost the referendum, you only need to look at the Garden Bridge; it's hard to imagine a more perfect metaphor for everything that's wrong with the EU and the cringing fusspots in love with it. It's a bridge – and what's more important, in these troubled times, than building bridges? – but one that brings together two places that are already perfectly well-connected, and which can be closed off whenever its owners want, to whoever they don't want crossing it. Go drown in the Thames instead, ingrates. It's presented as a gift to the people of London, but we'd have to pay through the nose for it, and it would remain under private ownership, a chintzy facsimile of real public space. It's a piece of spectacle disguised as something that would actually work. And nobody really seems to want it; it's just Joanna Lumley and her coterie of well-meaning thespians, their lips pursed into puckered little cat's anuses, who think it's simply a lovely idea, and that the rest of us will agree as soon as they get their way.

This should be the real sticking point: so many objections to the bridge seem to start from the notion that yes, it would be great if we were to for some reason stretch a piece of over-pruned parkland over the Thames, but it should be a public space, not something owned by private interests. It would not be great. It would be a twee fantasy garden that turns to slurry in the rain, mostly populated by shitting dogs and weary men in demeaning uniforms to clear up the mess, helping nobody except the landlords at each terminus.

The Garden Bridge is an ugly, pointless design for an ugly, pointless concept, something we're building because (this really can't be repeated enough) Joanna Lumley decided that she wanted one and wouldn't shut up until the government agreed to let her have it. It's a piece of benign totalitarianism, and sometimes the mask slips. In the Evening Standard earlier this year, editor Sarah Sands wrote that just as "the character of New York subtly changed with the High Line linear park", so too would London's "garden of reconciliation" turn us all into "kindlier and more attentive citizens", "friendlier and less polarised". We need the bridge because we're bad people. Forget actually transforming society into something that doesn't actively crush human emancipation at every turn: a new bridge will make us better; our well-meaning liberal overlords have a plan for us all. But maybe they're right – if the gaudy monstrosity is built, it can bring us all together with a warm glow in our hearts as London unites to burn it down.

The Royal Yacht: Brexit Britain Sails Off the Edge of the World

As the EU referendum drew closer, the Leave campaign started trotting out an old Churchill quote: "If Britain must choose between Europe and the open sea, she must always choose the open sea." He wasn't wrong: this is a nation of creepy loners, each of us imprisoned without the need for a cage, paddling alone in a blank blue infinity. The sea has suited Britain well; for centuries we've streamed off across it, always finding someone to murder, rape and dispossess on the other side. If the country is going to finally untether itself from the nearest landmass and once again impose itself on the world, what better symbol for our striding new ambition than spending £120 million on a new royal yacht?

The Telegraph-led campaign for a successor to the Royal Yacht Britannia is unlikely to ever be realised, which is just as well – it's an idea every bit as stupid as the Garden Bridge, but to give the scoffing liberals their due, at least their plan would be notionally open to the public. With the yacht, meanwhile, you don't even get to go on a ride. Instead it would bob around as a symbol of national pride – you might be eating cold beans out the tin using someone else's ear for a spoon, but at least her royal highness isn't afraid to park her boat next to the Russian tycoons at Monaco; our global status is intact. The boat would supposedly act as a floating embassy for British trade, zipping between the ports of the mysterious Orient to secure foreign investment; the belief seems to be that the rest of the world is full of credulous natives who would be awed by the sight of a moderately large boat, happily handing over their money to whatever Promethean race could build such a marvel of sensible naval architecture.

The reality would be very different. As our Floating Britain plunges beneath the inky foreign seas, a waterlogged Queen on board and already being eyed by darting little fish with thousands of needle-thin teeth, squabbles break out among the survivors as they grope vainly for the shore. Why are you moaning? Why are you talking Britain down by saying that the Royal Yacht has sunk? We're the greatest country in the world. Our boats never sink. We will rule the waves, now and forever.


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