I was outraged at the crass insensitivity of Labour’s spokespeople when the news broke that BAE is to close one of its shipbuilding yards.
There are two on the upper Clyde, at Scotstoun and Govan, and one at Portsmouth. Instead of getting together with everyone who represents the stakeholders in the Clyde’s last two yards, Jim Murphy and Ian Davidson hijacked the situation to bash the SNP and warn people that if they didn’t vote the Labour way, that’s No, in the referendum, they could kiss goodbye to their jobs.
For 40 years now, the Labour Party has been afraid that the SNP would capture its formerly reliable, solid support. The result of electoral successes in the shipbuilding constituencies achieved by the SNP has given rise to one of Scotland’s most hard-fought political contests, 365 days a year. But, in the past, when the very existence of Clyde shipbuilding was threatened, a truce was called in the inter-party dogfight to present as strong as possible a united front.
I can’t remember the possible closure of any of the yards being announced by Yarrows or Upper Clyde Shipbuilders just four weeks before Christmas, but I can well imagine the additional strain this will mean for the workers and their families and the local shops that serve them. This has served to highlight Labour’s lack of feeling for the anxiety that will be felt right across Clydeside, even though Jamie Webster, the convenor of shop-stewards, is quietly and confidently reassuring his members that compared to Portsmouth, Govan and Scotstoun are superior in experience, standards and price.
So why would BAE want to shut either one? Like its competitors, BAE is not flush with the readies. Following the failed merger talks between the big Franco-German conglomerate and itself, BAE has said it will review all its contracts with the UK government. The company might try to save money by lengthening the time taken to fulfil contracts, and therefore shrinking the workforce.
Often at the last moment, shipbuilding was saved on the Clyde. Empty order books was almost always the reason. But governments could influence a turn-up for the books by placing strategically timed orders for ships that would be built in the UK, in order to protect jobs and sustain the engineering, construction and steel working skills. The Clyde certainly benefited from this legacy when the Blair/Brown Westminster government placed the order with BAE for the two huge new aircraft carriers to be built in Scotland.
Most of Clydeside and a good part of Fife heaved a sigh of relief at the promise of a good few years’ work. But there were clouds in the sky: there was the ongoing debate among the UK’s armed services’ top brass about the priority that should be given to the second aircraft carrier, when the UK’s finances couldn’t meet the cost of aircraft for the carrier being built, with the prospect of the second being put straight into mothballs, if it ever was built. Also, there was a fundamental divide at government level and armed services command over the size of the British navy of the future.
As well as the above risks to shipbuilding on the Clyde, it looked as though there would be a gap in the order book. And of course the knock-on effects on curtailed finishing work would be felt by hundreds of families in Fife.
There has been much inconclusive talk about where the new Type 26 Global Combat ships would be built for the Royal Navy. It is mainly these promised ships that have question marks hanging over them.
The Government is very short of cash and this week the Bank of England warned that tough times were here for at least another eight years. So it’s a safe bet that there will be another review of defence spending, and, like the aircraft carriers, the original plan may have to be scaled down, with fewer Type 26 ships being built.
That’s the harsh reality. Yet Unionists in the No side of the referendum debate peddle the utterly false promise that the Clyde can look forward to a golden tomorrow thanks to the orders placed by Westminster governments ad infinitum for defence vessels.
Politicians, like Murphy and Davidson, more interested in their party’s interests than Scotland’s industries and future prosperity, threaten voters that unless they vote No in the referendum, they can kiss their shipbuilding jobs goodbye. Why? Because an English government will not have ships built in a foreign country, according to the dogmatic duo.
That last claim might prove to be a bit of bombast if BAE decides to retain its most profitable yards, knowing that Westminster doesn’t have the cash, or probably, the inclination to subsidise private companies even if they are of the order of BAE at Portsmouth.