Shipbuilding, politicking and industrial sovereignty

By Simon Barrow
November 7, 2013

As has been widely reported, BAE Systems is to cut 1,775 jobs at English and Scottish shipyards, with the complete closure of shipbuilding in Portsmouth and the loss of 835 jobs will be lost at yards in Govan and Scotstoun, on the River Clyde in Glasgow, at Rosyth in Fife, and at the firm's Filton office, near Bristol. This is tragic for all negatively impacted.

The decision, supposedly taken by the company without political interference and calculation, has nonetheless immediately become enmeshed in the constitutional debate in a most unseemly way.

Opponents of Scottish self-government, notably some senior figures in the coalition at Westminster, seem content that future contracts will not be finalised until after the Independence Referendum in September 2014, as this enables them to suggest that they will not be honoured north of the border if Scotland votes Yes. There is also a fairly naked attempt in some quarters to talk up potential division between English and Scottish workers (the last thing that is needed right now) and to infer that somehow ‘punishment’ is being meted out on England.

Meanwhile, the highly dubious wider track record of BAE Systems (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/tags/5398) is being ignored, the farcical idea that there can be no meaningful common interests and collaboration within the British and Irish isles if the nation-state system changes is being taken as read, the implications of £100 million worth of investment to expand the dockyard at Portsmouth are being overlooked, and the damaging over-dependence of jobs and investment upon unsustainable and changing military contracts is being treated as normative.

None of this helps those whose jobs are threatened or cut in either England or Scotland. The issue here is what the UK and Scottish governments can and should do in the area of economic and industrial policy, not least in areas where foreign interests have become overwhelmingly dominant. This is a matter of both capacity and will.

As Scottish deputy first minister Nicola Sturgeon has indicated, ensuring genuine prospects for the kind of lives and talent built up within shipbuilding beyond the immediate future requires a fresh approach. That should surely involve the development of environmental technology, a transfer away from the military sector, and a genuine partnership between government, industry and workers to deliver realisable change.

"The Scottish government will be working very closely with the company and with the trade unions, firstly to minimise the number of job losses, but also to work very hard with those affected to help them into alternative employment," she said.

Questioned in parliament, David Cameron merely reiterated that the decision had been made "in the national interest" and that of "the defence industry".

Sadly, the dominant culture of Westminster is not likely to deliver a cooperative approach with wider horizons than that. Neoliberals do not believe in industrial policy. This reality surely strengthens, rather than weakens, the case for Scotland reclaiming its full capacity to act beneficially in these and other productive sectors, modeling a different way forward that might also act as a stimulus to similar pressure for change within the English regions.

Someone in my neighbourhood has written tellingly and movingly of what all this means here in Scotland. He says: “My family are from Clydebank. My grandfather, all his brothers, his father, all his brothers and his father before him were platers at John Brown’s. I won’t be told that staying with the UK is the way to secure shipbuilding on the Clyde. To say that is like a murderer standing above you saying, “if I pull the knife out, you might bleed to death”.

“When your jobs rely on political expediency you must worry for your long term sustainable future. The men and women of BAE on Govan and Scotstoun are highly skilful, world-class engineers and workers. The appropriate government policy required to secure their futures and that of their communities is not to strong arm a company into closing a different shipbuilding yard and then hold a sword above their heads.

“The policies that are needed are based on the re-industrialisation of our economy and within Scotland this means via green and energy engineering. In 'Yes Leith and North Edinburgh' we have two activists who work at Pelamis making 180 metre wave power machines in Leith.

“Two weeks ago the world’s largest marine turbine, rising nearly 200m from the water, was launched on the Forth. The future of Scottish shipbuilding jobs is in diversifying and retooling into these areas and to do this on the scale required, we need the powers from Independence.

“The other option is to vote No and to continue to watch the slow death of this industry, where UK government policy ensures it can only rely on an ever tightening supply of naval contracts from a bust country.”

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© Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia. He lives in Leith and is involved in civic and political debates about the future of Scotland and the British and Irish isles.

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.