Portsmouth: Should the government wield defence contracts politically?

By Henry Hill

Defence & WarA narrative seems to have settled around the government’s decision to consolidate UK defence shipbuilding on the Clyde, at the cost of closing Portsmouth yard. According to some, including the Telegraph’s Con Coughlin, a proud English city has been shafted by a government hell-bent on lavishing gifts on the Scots. A shipbuilding tradition, centuries in the making, has been brought to a cruel close in a nakedly political decision which raises profound questions about England’s support for the Union, so long taken for granted. On my own website Open Unionism, Lucius Winslow thunders that “the government has brought shame on the Union”.

When I first heard about this story, filtered as it was through either this prism or a slightly softer lens of polite “we will never know what role the referendum played” doubt that pervaded actual news articles, I was just as angry as Coughlin. My reasons were different – I don’t share an ounce of his Anglo-nationalist sentiments and can’t see the Portsmouth decision as a price ‘we’ are paying for ‘them’, Portsmouth and Glasgow both being British cities to which I have no direct relation. But I thought that the idea of trying to bribe Scots into accepting the Union was a profoundly wrong one.

First off, it poisons the well of any victory in 2014. The more inducements Westminster offers Scots to stay, whether they take the shape of politically-motivated defence procurement or endless promises of ‘more powers’ (i.e. ‘less Britain’), the less emphatic will any endorsement of the Union be in the event of a ‘No’ vote. Enthusiasts for devolution, bending over backwards to make the case that voting No is actually a vote for more devolution, are laying the foundations for the SNP’s next referendum campaign, and Westminster politicians do the same thing when they give nationalists the excuse that Scots rejected their Eden not out of genuine affection for or loyalty to the United Kingdom but because London’s short-term bribes were sufficiently shiny.

More profoundly, it’s an unhappily mercenary way to set about saving a country. The UK is a country, not a contract or alliance, and as with any proper marriage that means taking the rough with the smooth. Unionists should not allow their understandable fear of losing the referendum (and as every defender of the status quo knows, you only need to lose once) to deter them from finally doing what they’ve been neglecting to do since 1998, namely re-learning the word ‘No’, articulating the limits of devolution and making it clear to Scots that the Union is not a constitutional buffet, each element to be chosen or discarded at will.

Yet before I could get those thoughts down into a short little piece for OU, I realised that none of the ferocious criticisms of the decision I had read contained an actual demolition of the business case for a single shipyard. The notion that it was a pro-Union ploy seemed so self-evident to Coughlin and Winslow that they didn’t actually demonstrate it.

It does not seem remotely implausible that, in an era of ever-shrinking defence budgets and a smaller, more modern fleet, the UK government requires far fewer naval vessels than once it did. As British civilian and commercial shipbuilding died decades ago, it is thus inevitable that MoD assets are going to be rendered redundant and sold off. That’s unfortunate, and I speak as someone who opposes the continued trimming of our defence budget, but given any government’s aversion to making unpopular decisions I don’t think there’s much doubt that major shipbuilding closures had to happen.

The question then becomes one of where the axe should fall. The implication behind the outraged tones of angry commentators is that the burden should have been shared fairly equally between Scotland and England, rather than leaving Portsmouth to take all the pain. But that’s actually pretty much what happened. The complete closure of the Portsmouth yard cost, according to the BBC, 940 staff posts. In unfairly-favoured Scotland, job losses totalled 835, just over a mere 100 fewer. If you include 170 agency workers in Portsmouth’s figure the gap widens a little, but not to the point where any ‘equitable’ settlement is seeing the southern port lose anything less than most of its personnel.

If such vast reductions in manpower are necessary, why should the government maintain two sites? The Scottish yards are bigger and have the capacity to build a wider array of warships, including the two new super-carriers laid down by Gordon Brown (in a move which almost certainly was aimed at reminding Glaswegians of Labour beneficence). Having one site is very likely to be more cost effective, not least allowing for the concentration of investment in modernising a single yard.

None of this is conclusive, and it may well be that the economic case for closing Portsmouth does not stand up, but it does at least suggest that said economic case could plausibly exist and no credible narrative of English victimhood can be established without properly knocking it over, especially since the evidence for it being a political decision is circumstantial at best.

For example, the coincidence of this decision with the Scottish referendum is cause for suspicion but not proof of those suspicions. Meanwhile, the government’s comment that if Scotland votes ‘Yes’ shipbuilding will likely return to Portsmouth is portrayed as little more than a thinly-veiled warning to the Scots on first reading and is thus cited as proof of political perfidy. Coughlin writes:

“Indeed, the fact the Government has openly stated that Portsmouth jobs will be saved only in the unlikely event that Scotland does vote for independence shows that this decision owes more to political skulduggery than commercial or strategic commonsense.”

Does it? To me it simply seems a statement of the blindingly obvious. The British government does not tender defence shipbuilding outside the UK. As the UK is presently established, the Clyde is (according to BAE) the best location to concentrate naval construction. If Scotland votes to leave, the Clyde will no longer be British territory and Portsmouth, shorn of competition, would almost certainly be re-activated. This isn’t proof that the government isn’t making decisions with an eye on the referendum – proving a negative is damnably difficult – but it should demonstrate that Coughlin et al take things to be self-evident which, on closer examination, are not, and that his article is a coded plea for the very political favouritism in defence spending he is so against.

Given the failure to engage with the Government’s and BAE’s case for the closures, a whiff of hypocrisy hangs over many of the column inches roared out over Portsmouth. Much outrage is directed, quite rightly, at the notion that the government would make a bad business and strategic decision for the purely political end of pleasing the Scots. But by couching their complaints in the language of victimhood, and talking in terms of England getting shafted and England’s place in the Union being brought into doubt, some commentators look like they’re pleading for exactly the sort of politically-motivated special treatment they so resent the Scots for apparently receiving. If Scottish and English jobs are equally valuable (and they are), then it follows that all things being equal it can still make sense to concentrate resources in one part of the UK rather than the other.

But it is to the discredit of the various post-1998 Westminster governments that they have created a situation where the suggestion of politically-motivated bribery is so immediately creditable, not least by their far less defensible horseplay with Army regiments. It is in moments such as this, rather than the SNP, that we see the real prospect of the end of the UK, as common feeling evaporates and the various pieces of our country start fighting for bits of the pie.

For the sake of the Union, and its constituent parts, a harder and more realistic line should be adopted. Unionists must recognise and be blunt about the fact that the Union will always have its downsides, that it is worth the price but it does have a price. It will be much harder work than the present strategy of presenting the Union as all things to all people, but Britain would emerge stronger for it.

Henry Hill is the editor of Open Unionism