“Ding Dong” is still the Song of the Clyde – politically at least

Two contrasting opinion pieces on all things Clyde-built this morning. Euan McColm takes Nicola Sturgeon to task, suggesting that her assertion that post-independence, of course Clyde ship builders could still make frigates for the Royal Navy, was rash and unfounded. “Sturgeon’s handling of this issue began so well. But today her argument is destroyed and her personal credibility damaged by that trade union attack. I wonder how she’ll get out of this one. I don’t see an obvious route.” Ouch. In fact, more than ouch, for McColm seems to think this might well be a hit which sinks the good ship Sturgeon.

And then we have Kevin McKenna in the Guardian denouncing the behaviour of Unionist politicians who used the job losses at Govan and Scotstoun to foretell impending doom if Scotland votes yes next September. “Last week in Scotland showed that there are still many in our midst who loathe and fear their own kind. There are those, including Davidson, Robertson and Carmichael, whose hatred and fear of independence is such that they would punish their own country by destroying part of its industrial infrastructure.” More ouch, this time for those on the No side.

So, which opinion is right?

There is no doubt that talking in certainties when the future of Scottish shipbuilding is anything but, is dangerous: why politicians persist in it is a puzzle.

What’s also a puzzle is that despite apparently spending the last twelve months squaring off the difficult questions about life post-UK, someone in the SNP inner circle forgot to include the defence manufacturing industry. Angus Robertson’s Powerpoint presentation at a fringe meeting ahead of last year’s great NATO debate at SNP conference – and indeed the motion setting out what a post-independence defence function would look like – should have addressed all this.  Perhaps it did and we’ve all forgotten. That’s what happens when you allow carefully crafted policy to be hijacked by a totem issue.

Also perplexing is why those what lead the rest of us yay-sayers persist in shaping the future of an independent Scotland around our continuing relationship with rUK. It instantly allows those who’d rather we stayed whole to rebut any claims about how that relationship might be founded; they, after all, as the larger partner reckon they hold more of the cards – and how does that sound familiar?

Yet, earlier in the week, Nicola Sturgeon was quite brilliant in holding up the Norwegian example as one that might provide a blueprint for Clyde shipbuilding post independence. Far from gaffing as Euan McColm suggests, I thought the Deputy First Minister was first class standing in at First Minister’s Questions on Thursday. She expressed sympathy for jobs lost, including at Portsmouth, and relief at those saved; she brought Johann Lamont into the conversation, talking of what they shared as neighbouring MSPs; she highlighted the Norway example – again; and she called out the UK Government for daring to suggest that if Scotland votes yes, the Clyde won’t get to build those frigates after all, by quoting the UK Defence Secretary’s musings on collaboration with Australia on future defence procurement contracts. A vital contextual matter which Euan McColm conveniently ignores in his opinion piece.

In fact, the one criticism I would have of the Cabinet Secretary for Capital and Infrastructure’s handling of this situation this week is that she hasn’t fully exploited the failure of UK elected representatives for Govan and Scotstoun to do anything to diversify the order book and create a sustainable future for those workers.  Could someone, somewhere please ask Ian Davidson what exactly is it that he has done for those shipyards as the MP for the area for 21 years, other than appear like Banquo’s ghost whenever there’s bad news?

I share Kevin McKenna’s distaste for the behaviour of UK politicians this week:  if anyone has treated Scotland’s shipyards like a political football, it’s them.  And I’d also call out the GMB Official John Dolan for talking down the prospects for work post-independence.

In a week in which GMB Scotland declared its support for a No vote in the independence referendum, based on a series of consultative meetings but no workforce ballot, his remarks have surely to be qualified politically. After all, he’s speaking as a paid official of that union, not as an elected office-bearer from the workforce to either GMB Scotland’s regional council or indeed, its manufacturing branch. If, as he says, he’s speaking up for the workers, where’s his critique of successive Labour and Tory UK Governments which have allowed the prospects of Govan and Scotstoun to wither to the extent that their very future hangs on orders for two frigates that are still at least two years off having a rivet bolted on to them?

The crux of the matter boils down to this: who do Scots and indeed, the Clyde shipyard workers, families and communities trust to speak up for them and stand up for their interests more? An SNP Scottish Government or a Conservative-Liberal Democrat UK coalition government or even, Labour opposition politicians?  The polls all suggest the former but such is the fear-mongering going on in the referendum debate, the Scottish Government and its Ministers have been pushed onto the defensive again. This despite the evidence plain for all to see that a once mighty industry and workforce has been allowed to wither away almost to nothing by the failure of UK Governments to generate a blueprint for a sustainable future.

They need to find a way to stop this happening. There are no certainties for Govan and Scotstoun either in the UK or as part of an independent Scotland. There are only opportunities, possibilities and yes, threats and challenges. The SNP has already pointed out the positive example of Norway’s thriving and vibrant shipbuilding industry as one which could be mirrored here with a Yes vote.  Now put the ball back in the UK parties’ court:  beyond two frigates, what else has the UK got to offer the Clyde?  And what is it that Labour would do differently if elected in 2015?

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2 thoughts on ““Ding Dong” is still the Song of the Clyde – politically at least

  1. Pingback: "Ding Dong" is still the Song of the ...

  2. Nicola Sturgeon can state with absolute certainty that the Type 26 frigates will be built on the Clyde because there is nowhere else in the UK to build them.

    Euan McColm makes the common mistake in his article of talking about contracts to build ships being awarded to ‘yards’. Unusual because he usually gets his facts right even if you don’t agree with his analysis.

    The contract to build the Type 26s will go to BAE. BAE has chosen to cease shipbuilding at Portsmouth. They couldn’t reverse that even if the UK Government told them to because Portsmouth does not have the capacity or the skillset to do the work alone.

    This is a very tricky issue for the SNP however – though maybe not for the reasons people think. Because BAE don’t actually need to keep both Clyde yards open. The priority for the SNP has always been to keep both Clyde yards open. So they are probably a bit exposed on the diversification argument.

    Diversification won’t happen with BAE because they are only really interested in naval contracts (a cynic might say because they can write their own cheques with the MoD). So in a sense talking about diversification could almost pre-suppose BAE pulling out of one of the yards. You don’t want to actually encourage that.

    That may well be – in fact it probably will be – what happens after the referendum, irrespective of whether it is a Yes or a No vote. We have to hope/assume that behind the scenes there is work being done on how to deal with that scenario.

    But in the meantime it would be good if it became less of a political football because it really doesn’t help and the reality is the referendum will not decide the future of Scotstoun or Govan.

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