Most newspapers today are reporting concerns over the future of the UK’s three remaining naval shipyards, located in Portsmouth on the south coast of England, and at Govan and Scotstoun on the Clyde. Owners BAE Systems have strongly hinted that at least one is likely to close, with a decision expected by the end of 2012, and the two Glasgow yards (which more or less face each other across the river) tend to be treated as a single unit.
The relevance of the outcome to the independence debate is obvious. Shipbuilding on the Clyde has long been a totemic feature of the argument for the Union, with Labour and Conservatives alike long having insisted that there would be no chance of the rUK commissioning warships from an independent Scotland – Labour MP Ian Davidson is quoted today saying that very thing:
“Obviously if Scotland were to separate from the United Kingdom, then the terms of business would preclude any orders for the Type 26 being placed on the Clyde.”
So the problem for the Westminster government is clear: shut the Clyde yards, handing the SNP and the Yes campaign huge propaganda victories, or shut Portsmouth, costing thousands of jobs in an almost entirely Tory area where only one of the seats currently held by the party (Gosport, a majority of 15,000) could be classed as “safe”.
It’s difficult to picture a world in which the Conservatives would sacrifice 5000 jobs in their own heartland in order to save 3000 in Glasgow, but to not do so would be to torpedo the “Better Together” campaign to devastating effect – an option which the party may find more tolerable if only because the explosion would also damage Labour in its biggest remaining Scottish stronghold.
Of course, the independence movement gets a big stick to beat the Union with in either case – were Portsmouth to be closed, the rUK would be left with no facilities for warship construction at all, making the threats of the likes of Ian Davidson sound even more hollow. Non-combat vessels are one thing, but would the rUK really commission its battleships, frigates and aircraft carriers from the other side of the world rather than a tried-and-trusted contractor a few miles across the border – particularly if it was seeking co-operation from its neighbour over the location of Trident submarines while London found somewhere in its own waters to base them?
Not only shipyard workers will be awaiting the decision with trepidation.