The deal the UK government seems to be offering Scotland is: you can have a shipbuilding industry on the Clyde but only if you vote against independence next year. It follows the announcement from the shipbuilding company BAE Systems that it is cutting 835 jobs from its workforce of 3,200 on the Clyde and ceasing shipbuilding altogether in Portsmouth, with the loss of 940 jobs. It’s all because of a shortage of orders, as work on the Royal Navy’s two aircraft carriers come to an end.
Shipbuilding is one of those totemic industries which defines a country’s manhood. The men of the Clyde are seen as the girders of Scotland’s economy and culture. These were the men who once built a quarter of all the world’s ships, producing from their ranks self-made politicians, film stars and football managers. Losing over 800 Red Clydesiders is a body blow to the personage of Scotia. Their loss is not quite like 800 jobs going in retail or electronics or local government…though of course the economic effect is just the same.
This is why shipbuilding has become a big political issue and has entered the debate over independence. The UK government has thrown a lifeline to the two Clyde yards, Govan and Scotstoun, in the form of a contract to build three navy patrol vessels in the immediate future. And it has dangled the carrot of big contracts in the longer term for a series of new type 26 frigates – if there is a No vote on independence.
At question time in the Scottish Parliament on Thursday, the two women of the Clyde, the SNP’s Nicola Sturgeon and Labour’s Johann Lamont, fought like sea lions over the issue. They both have constituency interests in the shipyards. Ms Lamont said the SNP was putting the remaining jobs on the Clyde at risk because no British government would agree to building its frigates outside Britain. Ms Sturgeon said any British government would recognised that the Clyde was the best place to have frigates built and indeed the only place, since Portsmouth was now out of the running. It would make sense for an independent Scotland and the rest of Britain to enter into an international partnership, with other countries too, to have their frigates built on the Clyde.
The whole issue has raised another embarrassing question: why has so little been done to broaden to the base of the Scottish shipbuilding industry? It is almost totally reliant on government contracts, either for the navy or the nationalised ferry service. Why are the North Sea oil companies or the freight shippers or the cruise liner firms not ordering their vessels from Scottish yards? Norway, apparently, has 42 shipbuilding yards producing a hundred boats a year. The Clyde alone used to have 19 shipyards – this was in 1913 when they employed 70,000 men and were launching a ship every day of the year. Now we only have the two BAE yards and Ferguson’s (only employing 150 staff) and a scattering of small yards around the east coast. (And two of those have closed this year: in Buckie and Eyemouth.)
We came close to losing Govan and Scotstoun this week, just as we were close to losing the Grangemouth refinery last week. Both show how Scottish industry is failing to keep pace with change and failing to invest for the future.
By the way, the Grangemouth affair smouldered on this week. The shop steward convenor Stephen Deans not only quit his job at the company but he is also standing down as chairman of the local Labour Party in Falkirk West. And we still haven’t got to the bottom of what went on over the selection of a parliamentary candidate in the constituency. David Miliband has ruled out an inquiry, despite Ms Lamont and Alistair Darling suggesting a further investigation would clear the acrid air.
There was quite a bit of acrid air on Bonfire Night this year. The new all-Scotland fire service reported that it had attended 1,075 incidents and fire crews had come under attack from vandals at 20 of them. Some Celtic fans also disgraced themselves that same Wednesday night by fighting with Ajax supporters in Amsterdam. The team itself went down 1: Nil in what the manager Neil Lennon himself described as an “insipid” performance.
In short it’s been a week when the worms have been eating away at our national pride. They have even attacked the hallowed turf of Murrayfield. Groundsmen have used an unusual tactic against the nematodes, spraying the pitch with garlic. I wonder what the place will smell like when we play against Japan on Saturday.