Workers fear for future of shipbuilding if Scotland votes ‘yes’ to independence
Most of Glasgow’s shipyard workers believe build orders would go elsewhere
Scottish first minister and SNP leader Alex Salmond (centre) visits Ferguson Shipbuilders. Photograph: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images
A stream of young apprentices, fresh-faced and smiling, leave the Scotstoun dockyard in Glasgow, some of the 50 that have been taken on by the yard’s owners, BAE Systems, this year.
“They are the future,” says Duncan McPhie, the Unite convenor in Scotstoun, one of only two left in a city that once built ships for the world. Three thousand shipbuilders are left in the Scottish city, now entirely dependent upon Royal Navy orders, which could be threatened if Scotland votes Yes.
Three patrol ships, worth nearly £350 million, are to be built by Govan Shipbuilders, but they could be the last ships built there if BAE decides, as is likely, to draw all work into the Scotstoun yard across the Clyde. Both could wither if the British government pulls plans to place a £7 billion order for Type 26 frigates in Scotland. For now, most of the workers believe it would do so.
The final order has been held up pending the referendum result, but British ministers have warned that British warships have never been built outside of the UK outside of wartime.
For the Yes campaign, the warning is a bluff. The orders would not be lost to an English dockyard, while Scottish yards would, in any event, have a bright, largely civilian future in an independent Scotland.
Both sides are versed in European Union regulations, with frequent mention of exemptions under article 346 that allow for military contracts to escape usual EU tender rules.
McPhie, who is voting No, is unconvinced about the Yes side’s claims: “I hear what they are saying. There are some interesting options, sure, but is there a will to do it,” he questioned.
Past actions weigh heavily on the mind. The Scottish government, for example, placed an order for a new ferry for the state- owned Caledonian MacBrayne with a German shipyard.
Ten more ferries will be needed by the operator – which plays a vital role linking the Western Isles, the Orkneys and a host of smaller islands with the mainland – over the next decade.
This week, Scottish first minister Alex Salmond was frequently visible during successful efforts to reopen the small Ferguson shipyard in Port Glasgow further down the Clyde.
For most shipyard union leaders on the Clyde, Salmond has never been equally available to them when they have wanted to ask about the consequences of independence.
Earlier this month, a group of 14 union leaders met with minister for transport Keith Brown for 45 minutes to seek answers, but left believing they had got none. “We never met the first minister and have been put on instead to the transport minister. Even if Brown was a Royal Marine he isn’t the man who will be placing the contracts,” McPhie said.
McPhie believes the idea that the British government would have no option but to use Scottish dockyards after independence is “insulting” to the workers employed in English yards.
However, pro-independence campaigners point out that BAE is in the middle of closing down its Portsmouth yard, while Barrow-on-Furness in Lancashire builds submarines.
However, there is the issue, again, of article 346; if London was to agree to build warships outside of its territory it would mean EU tender rules would have to apply.
If Webster is in a minority, there are other voices, including Jimmy Cloughley and David Torrance who, now in their 70s, worked in the Glasgow yards during some of their heydays.
Torrance was one of the union shop stewards in 1971 who under the leadership of the late Jimmy Reid took over the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders (UCS), when it went into receivership.
Famously, Reid told the workers that there would be “no hooliganism, no vandalism and no bevvying” while the yards’ outstanding orders would be completed.
Tens of thousands marched outside; even John Lennon of the Beatles sent £5,000 to support them .
Forty years on, neither man has lost his fire. Last month, they and five other veterans of the UCS battle publicly declared their belief that the yards have a better future under independence. Pointing to history, Torrance says: “A Westminster government has never saved a shipyard in its life. It has been death by a thousand cuts over the last 40 years.”
Following independence, the Scottish government could guarantee that the Caledonian MacBrayne ferries would be built in Scotland. Other EU states do it: “Govan landed a Brittany Ferries order 20 years ago and the French government stepped in and stopped it under an exemption under article 346,” says Cloughley.