It is a sight quite amazing to behold – Unionists scrambling about to outbid each other on how poor Scotland will become if we dare to vote Yes to independence. The latest and still ongoing focus for this scaremongering is the future of the two naval shipyards on the Clyde – Govan and Scotstoun. The recent decision by BAE, the owners of the two yards, to close down their other shipbuilding yard in Portsmouth and in future to concentrate all shipbuilding on the Clyde would normally have been greeted as welcome news for Glasgow and for Scotland. Jobs secured and all that. But with the referendum in the offing, Unionists of all stripes are desperate for any excuse to roll out the warnings of disaster.
The basis for this warning was that in the event of Scotland becoming an independent country the rest of the UK would not or could not place future orders in what would be a foreign country. At first great play was made of EU laws on competitive tendering, but only a few diehards now trot this line out. Exposed as nonsense almost immediately in a post on Wings over Scotland, it has been subsequently confirmed by the UK minister for International Security Strategy that EU rules do not prevent the rest of the UK from placing orders for naval vessels wherever they want. You can read about it here.
The second line of argument was a historic one, the UK has never, except in war times, placed orders for naval ships outside the UK. While this is almost certainly true, it does nothing to tell us about what will happen in the future. I am pretty sure that all naval vessels were once upon a time built in the UK, but now some support vessels are currently being built in South Korea. So things do change. It is also very noticeable that Philip Hammond, the UK Secretary of State for Defence has repeatedly refused to rule out the possibility of future naval ships being built in an independent Scotland, despite much prodding by Scottish MPs.
It is one of the minor curiosities of this fracas that it is Scottish MPs and MSPs who have been the most outspoken and most insistent on claiming that in an independent Scotland no naval orders would or could come from the rest of the UK. So desperate are they to frighten people into a no vote that they are willing to sacrifice the jobs of thousands of people in the Clyde.
In all this brouhaha, a couple of things have gone amiss, at least by Unionists. The first is that the UK government does not own any shipbuilding yards, anywhere. All shipbuilding yards are owned and run by private companies. In the case of naval ships, the only company which does this is BAE Systems. According to their website, BAE is a global provider of defence and security products. (my emphasis) As mentioned above, the basis for the current bout of scaremongering is the recent decision by BAE to reorganise its naval shipbuilding capacity. The Portsmouth yard will close down and all future work will be done on the Clyde. The significance of this is that the UK government awards contracts to companies, in this case BAE, and not to a specific yard.
These contracts will be for the building of a new frigate, the Type 26 Global Combat Ship for the Royal Navy. A second point worth emphasizing here is that BAE is the only company with which the Royal Navy works for this type of ship. As BAE themselves put it: “A joint team of engineers from BAE Systems and UK Ministry of Defence is working to develop a detailed design and support solution for the ship ready for manufacture. The Type 26 will replace the UK’s Type 23 frigates, with the first set to enter service in the early 2020s and the last remaining in service beyond the middle of the century.” The bottom line is that if the Royal Navy is to get the new Type 26 frigate, then BAE is the only company that can build it. Following on from this, if BAE is going to build the new ships, then they will only build them on the Clyde. This is the only interpretation that can be made of BAE’s decision to retain only one shipbuilding facility and locate that on the Clyde. As the UK government has agreed to this commercial decision by BAE, one can only assume that the UK government is aware of the implications of this decision.
So, in brief, if the UK government decides place an order for the new Type 26 frigate, it can only do it with BAE, and they in turn can only build the ships on the Clyde. Now in theory the UK can attach conditions to an order. They could in theory, state that the ships must be built somewhere in the UK. However, if this were to happen then BAE would charge the UK government a pretty penny for all this extra bother and expense. At a time when the UK government is preaching the need for more austerity, spending all this extra money, just to punish Scotland, might be a bit of a hard sell to the tax payers in the rest of the UK.
For all the bluster about not building naval ships outwith the UK, the reality is that closer co-opoeration and partnerships have become the norm in the world of military construction. Back to the BAE website for their take on this aspect. Under the heading Partnerships, and still referring to the Type 26 Frigate, they write: “BAE Systems has a proven track-record in licencing warship designs and combat systems to international customers and partners, enabling local build which enhances skills and improves in-service support. The UK has committed to working with prospective international partners through a series of bilateral relationships to learn more about their requirements and ensure these can be met through the Global Combat Ship, with the potential to integrate systems specific to their individual requirements. Sufficient commonality will be retained to create opportunities for sharing training, operational experience and shipbuilding skills, each of which offers enormous value in bringing friendly maritime nations together”.(my emphasis) The key word here is friendly. Unless the rest of the UK wishes to treat Scotland as a hostile and unfriendly country, then they will build the ships on the Clyde. If we are to be treated as a hostile country, then I think in the interests of clarity and honesty, we should be told, now.