THE controversial downgrading of Rosyth naval dockyard by John Major’s government was carried out despite one of his ministers warning him the Fife site was cheaper and safer to run than similar facilities in the south of England, according to newly-released government papers.
The decision in 1993 to strip all nuclear submarine refitting work from the Scottish yard in favour of Devonport in Plymouth sparked a fierce backlash against the Conservative government, and was a leading factor in the party being virtually wiped out in Scotland at the 1997 general election.
Now, declassified documents show the depth of ill-feeling in Whitehall and the government in the run-up to the decision made by then defence secretary Malcolm Rifkind, at the time MP for Edinburgh Pentlands.
Amid claims by senior civil servants of the Ministry of Defence’s “south of England bias”, the papers detail a strained relationship between the MoD and the Scottish Office.
They include a draft minute prepared for then Scottish secretary Ian Lang and sent to Mr Major, which made clear that the “consideration of objective criteria… all point to nuclear Rosyth”.
The SNP last night said the revelations showed the MoD’s “utter disregard for Scotland”.
At the time, both yards were engaged in an aggressive and bitter competition to become Britain’s sole nuclear dockyard, as part of an MoD review of its ship-refitting capabilities.
Securing nuclear submarine work at Rosyth centred on Trident, would have seen refitting, repair and decommissioning contracts worth several billion pounds for about 30 years.
Babcock Thorn, which took over the yard from the government in 1993, now operates it as a surface ship refitting facility with far fewer staff.
Anger over the dispute within the Scottish Office is clear in a minute in which Mr Lang tells Mr Major that opting for Devonport would be “seeking to defend the transparently indefensible”.
He explained: “The consideration of objective criteria leads to the conclusion that the nuclear work should be located at Rosyth. Naval management considerations, safety, logistics, employment, the force of commitments given in the past, and the objectives of privatisation all point to nuclear Rosyth.”
The documents show how the Scottish Office also believed there was an evident bias, with David Miller, Mr Lang’s private secretary, writing on 9 July, 1992: “It is very plain that a considerable anti-Rosyth lobby exists within MoD.”
He added Rosyth “was the only [naval base] to be singled out for detailed analysis of the supposed benefits of closure.”
The documents include a letter from then deputy prime minister Michael Heseltine, who was also President of the Board of Trade, in which he intervenes on behalf of Devonport.
Mr Heseltine wrote to Mr Major: “The award of the contract to Devonport would help buy the necessary time [for diversification of the economy] and I urge you to give full consideration to this aspect in deciding to which yard the contract should be awarded.”
SNP Westminster leader and defence spokesman Angus Robertson said: “These shocking documents reveal the MoD’s utter disregard for Scotland, exposing as they do, the desire to consolidate everything it possibly could in the south of England, regardless of cost or logic.”