Warships have become the last ships that Britain really does. For a country that easily within living memory owned the world’s largest merchant fleet, this looks like a savage form of self-harm
Ever since the beginnings of steam navigation two centuries ago, the traveller to the western Scottish islands has sailed on ships built in Britain, launched with very few exceptions from slipways on the River Clyde. Within the next few years that will begin to seem remarkable: that Britain should ever have made such things. When the new ferry on the Ullapool-Stornoway route takes up its station in summer next year, the builder’s plate won’t bear a name such as Ferguson, Inglis, Lamont or Ailsa but that of a yard called Flensburger Schiffbau-Gesellschaft in Flensburg, Germany. The certainty is that it won’t be the last.
The switch to foreign builders began a few years ago when the Scottish government, which owns this vital piece of transport infrastructure in all but name, ordered two ferries for the island of Bute from a Polish yard in Gdansk. A third followed from Poland in 2011 for the Islay service. With the Bute order, the Scottish government pleaded that EU competition law forced them to accept the Polish tender over a rival bid from Ferguson’s in Port Glasgow – the last Scottish yard that can build a merchant ship. But the later orders from Poland and Germany attracted little comment and therefore prompted no government defence. Perhaps there comes a time in a nation’s industrial decline when it is best to abolish anger and regret in favour of an oblivion that permits human happiness.
Still, consider a few facts. Germany’s coastline measures 2,389km along the North Sea and the Baltic. Poland’s is just 500km, or double that if you add two lagoons. The coast of mainland Scotland, on the other hand, runs to 9,911km, or 16,490km if the islands are included. As well as this complex and ship-dependent geography stretching from Arran in the south to the furthest Shetland in the north, there are hundreds of oil platforms in the North Sea to serve and supply from ports such as Aberdeen. These were surely ideal conditions to sustain at least a kernel of what was once the world’s most celebrated shipbuilding industry. General cargo ships and Atlantic liners no longer exist; bulk carriers and tankers are the monopoly of China, Japan and Korea; cruise ships have become the specialism of Finland, Italy and Germany; black-funneled freighters no longer sail into Glasgow and Tilbury with imperial tea. But Britain still needs the humble stuff of ferries, coasters, tugs and oil-rig support vessels. Over the past 20 years we have built very few of them, and in some categories none. Warships have become the last ships that Britain really does. For a country that easily within living memory owned the world’s largest merchant fleet, this looks like a savage form of self-harm.
“The Clyde is proud of its history and skills,” a Glasgow MP said on the …read more