A war of words has broken out after a House of Commons committee heard independence would kill Clyde shipbuilding.
Workers at the Scotstoun and Govan shipyards continue to produce world-class vessels for the Royal Navy but no foreign yard has built a British warship in over half a century. Union leaders say if Scotland votes for independence, more than 16,000 jobs could be lost.
The decline of shipbuilding had lasting effects on Clydebank and neighbouring Glasgow communities, but the industry remains vital to the future of Greater Glasgow. Many residents of Clydebank, Drumchapel, Knightswood and Yoker continue to work in the Scotstoun and Govan yards or in other sectors linked to Clyde shipbuilding.
Under European trade rules Britain is able to insist Royal Navy vessels are built within its borders. If Scotland became independent however, the UK government would not be able to open contracts to Scotland without allowing all EU countries to bid for the work.
The House of Commons’ Scottish Affairs Committee heard it meant orders for Clyde-built ships would not continue if Scotland left the United Kingdom. Unite’s Duncan McPhee, a senior shop steward working at BAE Systems in Glasgow, told MPs he thought Clyde shipbuilding could be “finished”.
Mr McPhee explained: “Under article 346 [of the Lisbon Treaty], if ministers were considering placing an order in a foreign country they would have to open up EU-wide. So quite clearly there would be no work on the Type 26 destroyer. There is absolutely no other work on the horizon at the moment. It would be a definite closure scenario.”
His comments were supported by delegates from GMB and the Confederation of Ship Building and Engineering Unions. They were appearing before the committee as it examines issues around Scottish independence.
A spokesman for Downing Street added: “The reality is Britain hasn’t built a warship outside the UK in 50 years. A distinction has to be made between contracts already made and those further down the line. Separation is not just for a five-year term.”
Angus Robertson MP, the SNP defence spokesman and the party’s leader at Westminster, said: “A sovereign Scotland will be buying defence contracts from England, so unless the UK government was being utterly childish it would be buying from Scotland.
“Scottish skills and technical expertise are what make our shipbuilding successful. That wouldn’t change under independence.”
Mr Robertson did not dispute however, that a British government giving military work to an independent Scotland would have to allow bids from across the continent. Governments can keep work within their own country on grounds of essential national security – but they cannot discriminate between fellow EU countries.
A representative of the Confederation of Shipbuilding and Engineering Unions said the Scottish Government had given no information about how it could protect shipbuilding from the effects of leaving the UK. Kenny Jordan said: ”We need to hear what they are going to do to replace these contracts. I don’t think they have thought about it at all.”
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