Independence threatens a proud industry that is an emotional part of Scotland’s history, writes Iain Gray
Yesterday was my friend John Park’s last day as an MSP. He returns to a career as a trade union official after five years in opposition, yet he leaves a legacy. The architect of Labour’s demands for more apprenticeships, so comprehensively did he convince the SNP that the programme could be expanded, that apprenticeship numbers became its proudest boast.
John was also Holyrood’s greatest advocate of the living wage, which has gone from “nice idea” to reality for Scottish public-sector workers in his time as parliamentarian.
He is also a tireless supporter of Scottish shipbuilding, which is unsurprising given that John, uniquely for an MSP, began working life as an apprentice in Rosyth dockyard. He leaves as Scottish yards on the Clyde seem under threat again.
Shipbuilding evokes powerful sentiment in Scottish politicians. The riveters, welders and hauders-on of the yards, strong in their steely solidarity, are core to Labour’s self-narrative, celebrated in folksong and plays like Willie Rough and The Ship, and a part of real industrial history such as the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders’ sit in. The SNP, too, weaves the story of shipbuilding into its own version of Scotland’s story.
Some have tried to break this spell, notably Wendy Alexander, who supposedly dismissed shipbuilding as “metal bashing”, to be replaced by “knowledge” industries. But the emotional pull remains.
Only one member of my family worked in a shipyard, in Leith. Yet I have powerful memories of launches. Aged seven, on a family visit to Belfast, I was taken to see the launch of the supertanker Maracaibo. I can still hear the chains slip and feel the whole world shifting. I vividly remember my whole school being corralled into the hall to watch the launch of the QE2 on a small black-and-white television in 1967. Forty years later, I was fortunate enough to find myself in the VIP seats for the Govan launch of HMS Defender. Until you have watched 7,500 tonnes of ship gently slide away, it is hard to understand the emotional impact it has. Grown men cried, including me.
The irony for the workforce is that at this, the very moment of maximum pride in their achievement, comes the greatest uncertainty in their future.
John Park and I went to Rosyth, and we stood on the deck of one of the aircraft carrier sections. To do that is to understand why Wendy was wrong about shipbuilding. The skill to bend ten thousand tonnes of steel to our will in a vessel designed to dominate the very ocean epitomises the confidence in our own creative capacity which we need now more than ever. Moreover, the cutting-edge technology to create and sail these ships is the very knowledge industry we aspire to, right down to the sophisticated metallurgy of the steel itself.
The launch of the carriers will be a great day, but there is then a gap in contracts which threatens the UK’s naval shipyards, including two on the Clyde.
Govan MSP Nicola Sturgeon has demanded that we put party aside to argue the case for the Scottish yards together.
In 2010, when the UK defence review was rumoured to include cancellation of the carriers, I said the same thing at First Minister’s Questions, and Alex Salmond agreed. All four party leaders signed a document making the case for Scotland’s defence interests, including the carriers, and we travelled jointly to London to lobby the Defence Secretary.
We all compromised. Alex Salmond agreed to include a nuclear submarine base he does not believe in; while I had to let him lead on the argument for a shipbuilding industry Labour has long seen as “our” issue. Some colleagues were uncomfortable with that. Annabel Goldie and Tavish Scott had to lobby their own UK coalition government. But the carriers and hundreds of jobs on the Clyde and at Rosyth were saved.
Unfortunately, the key compromise we all made in 2010 is no longer available to us. Then, we simply ignored the consequences of Scotland voting for independence, because there was no referendum in prospect. We do not have that luxury today. The next naval ships, Type 26 frigates, will not be built in a Scotland which has chosen independence.
The SNP calls this scaremongering, an accusation which is the last refuge of politicians faced with an argument they cannot refute.
I hope that the Clyde yards are not compromised by the referendum, but they could not survive a Yes vote in their current form. The SNP claims that European law means that Scottish yards could not be excluded from Royal Navy contracts. But it knows that “grey ships” like the carriers or frigates are exempt from those laws. The SNP says that the Ministry of Defence could not ignore the shipbuilding skills of the Clyde, but it currently ignores the shipbuilding skills of any other country in the world, placing these orders in the UK.
Not one of these ships has ever been built outside the home country of the navy which is paying for them. There is no reason to think that an exception would be made for a separate sovereign Scotland. Scotland’s navy might commission ships of their own, but they would be fewer and smaller.
As for non-UK and non-military contracts, the yards build these now, but they are not enough to bridge the gap between MoD ships. Independence will not suddenly see liners like the QE2 built on the Clyde again.
This is not scaremongering, it is just cold logic. Nicola Sturgeon received plaudits this week for expounding nationalism of the head, not heart. Her head must tell her that independence will jeopardise Scotland’s naval shipyards.
As a “utilitarian nationalist”, she must believe that separation has benefits which outweigh the potential loss of large-scale shipbuilding and the skills which go with it. She should be honest enough to make that case.
We can be forgiven for going dewy-eyed about shipbuilding, but not for simply closing those eyes to the consequences of independence for our shipyards.