Margo MacDonald: 40 years on, has nothing changed?

Margo waves to cheering supporters after winning the Govan by-election in 1973. Picture: TSPL
Margo waves to cheering supporters after winning the Govan by-election in 1973. Picture: TSPL
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In the 40 years since I was elected to represent the constituency, Glasgow Govan, which is still the totemic home of shipbuilding on the Clyde, everything and nothing has changed.

The shop stewards I knew when Abba first made us gasp at their audacious threads and original harmonies are gone now. At least one of their successors, the convener at Govan, Jamie Webster, has seemed to me to be big enough and open-minded enough to step into their shoes.

But now the GMB union has entered the situation, determined to use tactics that would encourage or compel members to vote against independence. The centre of argument has moved away from the impressive boardrooms, dating from the good old days when the river ran with money, to the dockside conveners’ offices. It’s not the first time that the politics of what used to be Red Clydeside have got in the way of finding a sustainable solution to the endemic problem of the Upper Clyde.

In 1973, I suggested that the then growing new market in liquid gas carriers was tailor-made for capture by the yards on the Upper Clyde, not least because of the typical length of these vessels. The river is not wide or deep enough at the old Fairfield yard or Yarrows at Scotstoun to build cruise ships or really big carriers.

But a move into a new era with the intention of becoming the sector leader will always demand excellent industrial relations, training and management. Norway is held up as a model for Scotland. The Deputy First Minister drew heavily on the successful, busy shipbuilding on the other side of the Norwegian Trench. The implication was that if we copied our Norse neighbours, the hammers’ ding dong in the Song of the Clyde would ring out over the yards, proclaiming a confident successful Scottish industry. The stuff of legend, but elusive for the Clyde when it came to the reality of full order books.

Is it so because the men of the Clyde could not see the magnificence that used to be symbolised by the QEII in new launches of hospital ships, inter-island ferries, rig supply vessels and other types of small and medium sized commercial ships? In TV studios and scratch audience discussions, much was made of the superior skills of the Clyde. Politicians who should have known better still concentrated their attention on defence contracts.

Not for a minute do I accept that once the dust has settled and the heat has gone out of the referendum, governments in England and Scotland will not enter into co-operative ventures to suit both. But rebuilding and rebranding has to start now, with the sort of ships that we need here and other people will buy.

We can be pretty sure that unless the unions, the management and Scottish Enterprise agree to ignore the referendum and the coming general election that will signal Labour’s fight to become the largest party in England, the boat will have been missed, yet again. If this chance is missed, Clyde shipbuilding could go the same way as Clydeside steel.

Westminster does it better than Holyrood this time

We missed a trick in the Holyrood debating Chamber last week.

The news about the threat to Scottish shipbuilding had already been kicked around a bit at Prime Minister’s Questions in Westminster, and yes, that is the best verb to use to describe the careless way the hopes and happiness of thousands of families in Portsmouth and Glasgow were bartered between referendum spokespersons.

Now that’s not the same as saying that the Leaders of the Opposition will get the chance to dodge each other’s questions and use lots of scathing, angry, superficial or one-word dismissals of ideas other than their own.

Last week, 20 minutes of the 30 allocated for backbenchers to get stuck in were gobbled up by high-volume accusations and justifications from Labour’s Ms Lamont and SNP’s Ms Sturgeon, pictured left.

Meantime, sitting on the back-benches, willing the Presiding Officer to exercise her authority and declare the next half-hour to be given over to a debate, were at least six MSPs who knew something about the topic and who had ideas that it might have been very interesting to hear.

But the PO said that she thought she had done enough by giving the party leaders the time . . .Westminster did it better.


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