Ukraine crisis, China's manoeuvres and Donald Trump demonstrate need for UK to invest in its own defence industry – Mike Clancy

Visiting Scotland always feels like coming home. Returning to the birthplace of the trade union movement, of high-skilled engineering and innovation, and to the values of solidarity that have shaped not just Scotland but progressive change around the world.

Boris Johnson speaks to crew members of Vanguard-class submarine HMS Victorious during a visit to HM Naval Base Clyde at Faslane (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/pool/AFP via Getty Images)
Boris Johnson speaks to crew members of Vanguard-class submarine HMS Victorious during a visit to HM Naval Base Clyde at Faslane (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/pool/AFP via Getty Images)

Nowhere are these skills more visible than in the defence sector in Scotland.

Today, I am proud to be visiting our members at HM Naval Base Clyde who are part of a team of almost 7,000 highly skilled defence professionals keeping us all safe. Getting out to visit members is one of the highlights of my job as general secretary of the Prospect trade union, whether that is on the Clyde, those helping to keep the lights on in the energy sector, those in aviation, or our members delivering vital public services.

Our defence members are spread across the Clyde sites’ capabilities and public and private sector workforces, maintaining our submarines – including our sovereign nuclear deterrent.

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Talk of sovereignty and taking back control has been common in recent years’ political discourse – particularly in the independence and Brexit debates. But, despite this, there has been a real lack of focused government action on retaining control and sovereignty over critical industries.

In recent weeks, we’ve seen the dangers of outsourcing vital sovereign capabilities. The failure of successive governments to invest in new domestic nuclear power alongside renewable energy sources has left us at the mercy of a global bidding war for gas supplies, with consumers picking up the bill.

Further afield, some of our European neighbours are struggling to tackle Russia’s threats to Ukrainian sovereignty as a result of their dependence on Russian gas to meet their energy needs. Energy security is a pre-requisite for principled security and defence policy.

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The importance of maintaining sovereign defence capabilities in an uncertain world is even more stark. Decades-old allegiances and defence partnerships have come under strain, with the election and approach of the Trump administration underlining the dangers of becoming too reliant on allies in our defence strategies.

At the same time, we’ve seen a reversal of the Cold War thaw and China – having already brutally cracked down on freedom in Hong Kong – on manoeuvres in the South China Sea.

This global instability that threatens the late 20th century world order hammers home the need to invest in British industry across the four nations of the UK, particularly when it comes to defence. The UK government spends almost £300 billion a year buying goods and services from external suppliers – money that could be invested in highly skilled, well-paid jobs here in the UK.

The Westminster government professes to agree, having introduced weighting for “social value” into tendering decisions, requiring consideration of a number of effects including domestic job creation, the environment and the Covid recovery.

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Last year’s integrated defence review pledged to move away from “competition by default” and to prioritise UK industrial capability where required for national security and operational reasons.

But despite the rhetoric, there still appears to be a short-sighted fixation on headline price when it comes to doling out government contracts – one that risks jobs here in the UK whilst investing in them abroad.

In 2020, for example, the Ministry of Defence announced that the UK would equip its new Apache helicopters with missiles made in the US by Lockheed Martin, despite a competitive bid from British firm MBDA which employs 4,000 staff across the UK.

Too little consideration is given to the impact of directing public spending abroad rather than investing in our national and regional economies and communities: the “social value” test accounts for just ten per cent of the score for a contract bid. For levelling up to be more than lofty rhetoric and press releases written in London, this must increase.

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The current tender for the ships that support our Royal Navy vessels – known as the Fleet Solid Support programme – gives the government the chance to demonstrate its commitment to retaining good jobs and sovereign defence capabilities here in Scotland.

So far, we have a vague commitment to extending shipbuilding until the end of the decade. We need to see this solidified alongside a commitment to invest in British design as well as manufacturing, which would create a stable drumbeat of work that sustains jobs and skills at the Rosyth Dockyard.

But if price trumps all other considerations, the future is more uncertain – not just for Scottish workers in the defence industry, but for the thousands of people in jobs in the supply chain, and for the local economies that benefit from seeing those in well-paid jobs spending their money at local businesses.

Prospect is a proudly politically independent union – I’ll work with any government in Holyrood or Westminster to deliver for our members, whether nationalist or unionist, right-wing or on the left. Every political party has an interest in good jobs and sovereign capabilities being supported here in the UK.

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As Scotland transitions to net-zero carbon emissions and away from high-carbon industries including oil and gas, these highly skilled defence jobs that make use of engineering and technical skills will be more important than ever.

Prospect will be fighting for a just transition that doesn’t repeat the failures of the shipyard, steel and coal closures – a transition that protects jobs, skills and experience, and that supports communities across Scotland to thrive.

Mike Clancy is general secretary of Prospect trade union, which represents 11,000 scientists, engineers and managers across the defence industry in both the public and private sectors

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