Any decision to save Ferguson shipyard in Port Glasgow must be unsentimental and pragmatic, not based on dogma.
In the 1980s, nationalisation was almost a dirty word for some. It seemed decidedly old-fashioned amid the excitement over the latest privatisation. The ‘tell Sid’ advertising campaign for British Gas shares helped create a whole new generation of shareholders as the Thatcherite economic revolution gathered pace.
However, in recent years, there have been a number of examples of the reversal of this process. Services on the main East Coast rail line have been in and out of UK Government and private hands several times, Prestwick Airport is currently owned by the Scottish Government and there have been calls from some on the political left to embrace nationalisation on a wider scale.
Within this context, it might have been a bigger surprise if Finance Secretary Derek Mackay had ruled out taking Port Glasgow’s troubled Ferguson shipyard into public hands.
Around 350 jobs are at risk after managers last week served notice of their intention to put the yard, which is currently building two ferries for Cal Mac’s west coast services under a £97m fixed-price contract, into administration.
Things have clearly gone seriously wrong at the yard and, as Scottish Liberal Democrats leader Willie Rennie pointed out, the Scottish Government may have some difficult questions to answer about its role in the affair and use of public money.
Speaking on BBC Scotland, Mackay spelt out his view of the situation: “The £97m has already been spent on vessels that are not complete... The alternative is for the government to walk away, the company goes into administration, the jobs are lost, the vessels are not complete.”
And the GMB union stressed Ferguson’s was “not a basket case by any stretch of the imagination” and had a “huge future” as it was at the “cutting edge of hydrogen technology”.
So there might be a case to nationalise the company, perhaps temporarily, to save it from the fate Mackay described or to tide it over even further because of its potential for success as the world moves to a zero-carbon economy.
However, any such decision must be pragmatic, unsentimental, and driven by hard economics, not political dogma.
Just as energy privatisation hasn’t turned out quite as well as many consumers would have hoped, partly because of a lack of competition, no one should see the opposite change to the system, nationalisation, as a panacea.