Scotland’s shipyards: victims of misplaced optimism

Written by Tom Freeman on 25 July 2018 in Inside Politics

The latest setback is another case of unrealistic promises to Scottish shipbuilders

Clyde shipyard, by Ian Dick

Plans to maintain Scotland’s proud tradition of naval shipbuilding in the event of a successful yes vote in 2014 were described as a “conspiracy of optimism” by Westminster’s Scottish Affairs Committee.

It was not the first time planned defence projects at the Clyde and Rosyth yards had been described as such, though, and will not be the last.

This week workers at the Scottish yards are expressing their disappointment as a new Royal Navy frigates plan has been suspended at the last minute by the UK Government.

Amid a cluster of uncomfortable announcements quietly released on the last day of parliament before recess, plans for new Type 31e frigates were restarted because of a lack of what the MoD called “compliant bids”.

In other words, expecting industry to come up with a price tag of £250m per ship had been too optimistic.

The GMB union called the decision “a body blow” for the communities but in truth the union had already expressed scepticism that orders promised by the UK Government would be carried out.

Ross Murdoch, GMB national officer, said: “We have previously had the disappointment of the cancellation of the world class Frigate factory on the Clyde, the reduction from 13 Type 26 Frigates down to eight -  then the promise of the other five being replaced with five Type 31e's -  only for this now to be paused due to insufficient bids and competition.

“Is our sovereign defence capability this Government’s priority, or treasury budget setting?”

Given the fact the Scottish shipyards have been a political pawn in the constitutional debate, the priorities for them are as heightened as they are unclear.

Former Defence Secretary Michael Fallon overruled the head of the Royal Navy to pledge all the work on the new frigates programme to the Clyde.

“From 2015 the Clyde will be the UK’s only shipyard that builds complex warships,” he said, months after Glasgow had voted for Scottish independence by 53.5 per cent to 46.5 per cent.

But plans for a “frigate factory” at Scotstoun have since been scrapped by BAE, while an order of 13  frigates has been cut to eight.

New Fleet Solid Support Ships, meanwhile, will be awarded through an international competition.

SNP defence spokesperson Stewart McDonald called the latest developments “shocking”.

“Time after time the Tories make claims about shipbuilding being safe in their hands only for the workforces to be hammered by u turns - lies and broken promises,” he said.

Scottish Labour MP for Glasgow North East Paul Sweeney called the MOD’s price target for the new frigates “unrealistic”.

“The industry deserves better than for this story to be sneaked out on the day before recess. It's disappointing that the Secretary of State did not choose to inform the house,” he said.

“Just as we have seen with the Fleet Solid Support ships the Government is failing to support our industry and provide the reassurance needed for our shipbuilding industry to invest to be world class.

“We have a huge opportunity to achieve that with Type 26 being built on the Clyde and Type 31e, yet their adherence to free-market dogma above all else is squandering it; going back to the bad old days of insecure jobs and lack of investment that plagued our shipyards through the 1990s.”

But Sweeney himself remains optimistic that the Scotstoun frigate factory could still materialise.

The shipyard workers may well be hoping for some straight-talking realism after having their hopes raised repeatedly over the last five years by politicians with a constitutional agenda.

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