LETTER FROM SCOTLAND: 8TH NOVEMBER 2013

Jobs are going at the two shipyards on the Clyde

The Shipyards at Govan and Scotstoun survive

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.

There were once shipyards all along the Clyde (Pic: believed to be Creative Commons)
There were once shipyards all along the Clyde
(Pic: believed to be Creative Commons)
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.

Johann Lamont Accused the SNP Government of putting jobs on the Clyde at risk
Johann Lamont
Accused the SNP Government of putting jobs on the Clyde at risk
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.)

Grangemouth - another totem of Scottish industry
Grangemouth – another totem of Scottish industry
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.

  • Antoine Bisset

    Would it not be nice if Mr Knox were to read newspapers and keep abreast of what has happened, now and in the past?
    A Tory Government in Westminster refused to subsidise (or as they say elsewhere in the world – invest in) the Clyde shipyards when they were in a bad way financially. It may well be the case that the owners did not put as much in as they should have but shipyards are expensive and WW2 had pretty much brought them to their knees along with the rest of British heavy industry. So, goodbye Upper Clyde Shipbuilders.
    Note that support has been available for those yards working on Government contracts, hence the survival of what is now BAE Systems. While it is true that the letter of the EU rules frowned on such subsidies, it is also the case that at the same time as Clyde yards were closed for lack of Government support, other countries such as Finalnd and South Korea were pouring money into their shipbuilding industry.
    Finalnd now builds many of the giant cruise liners while South Korea now builds oil tankers for the Admiralty – the UK Admiralty.
    So on to the points being made by the lunatic Carmichael et al as regards RN warships being built abroad. We have no problem with selling UK built warships to foreign countries and there are high hopes of selling the Type 26 frigate to Australia and others. We have no problem with buying foreign planes to fly off UK aircraft carriers. We have no problem buying foreign transport and AWAC planes. We have no problem with buying foreign weapons systems from many different countries to equip our warships and our land forces.
    We, in the shape of the future rUK have a problem with buying warships made in Scotland, in the shipyard that is the best suited in the world to build them.
    Why is this?
    Oh, and as the building programme for the Type 26 specifies 13 vessels, one of them is destined for the Scottish Navy, is it not? So will an independent Scotland buy its planned Type 26 from an English yard because the English refused to buy from Scotland. Is everyone crackers?