These are testing times for commentators like me who try, despite my own beliefs, to keep an open mind and (somewhat harder) make commentary that includes others’ points of view. And just to prove how wide I have been casting my nets, I was brought up short by a piece on the Scottish Labour website that went far in testing my resolve.
Thomas Docherty, MP for the corner of the Kingdom that includes Rosyth, has a piece claiming to have written to SNP Defence Spokesman Angus Robertson MSP challenging the party to state whether they will retain one of the two aircraft carriers to be assembled there in an independent Scotland. He states:
“”The commitment to carriers will be warmly welcomed at Rosyth Dockyard, as it secures the jobs of 1500 skilled workers, including 200 apprentices, and guarantees work at this site for more than five decades. There is no doubt that the loss of the carriers would have a devastating impact on the Fife and indeed the Scottish economy and the SNP has a responsibility to make people aware of the full consequences of separation.”
Some will see this as simply a conscientious MP arguing the case for their local constituents, as can be seen daily in Westminster. I see this as exactly the kind of grandstanding self-serving piffle that makes MPs like Mr Docherty the target of anger by the great bulk of Scottish voters who aren’t riding the Labour gravy train (currently stalled in a siding outside Crewe). Allow me to explain.
Labour has a long and evil history in Scotland of throwing money at industrial projects for short-term reasons that seldom account for the the wider world and economic reality. Their Willie Ross is regarded as a ‘great’ Scottish Secretary of State. Though I can’t gainsay him some achievements, it was he who blessed us with Linwood, Monktonhall, Ravenscraig and other ‘make-work’ fag-ends of the Wilson/Benn “white heat of technology” guff. Those same white elephants caused no end of grief to workers and their families when global economic reality pulled the wool from their eyes.
And here we are, forty years on. Another Labour government has hatched another series of white elephants for their own short-sighted purpose. Worst among them were two aircraft carriers. Nothing wrong with carriers if you are running a blue water navy and require global military reach. But even worse than its conversion to nuclear weapons has been Labour being infected by the Tory delusion that Britain is a global power and can afford such things. If the mighty US has just announced £290bn in CUTS to its defence budget and that is seven times the total UK defence budget, what more proof do you need that we can’t afford to play this silly global game any more?
And just look at the story so far of HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Queen Elizabeth. These are not propitious names, even for Royalists: the previous owners were both sunk in 1941 (respectively) off Malaya by the Japanese 22nd Squadron and in Alexandria Harbour by some brave Italian frogmen. From a budget of under £4bn, these two huge ships have escalated to over £7bn—so much, in fact, that one is to be mothballed upon completion and neither will have a suitable aircraft deployed on their decks until five years after completion (sometime in the 2020s).
Far from Scotland being able to afford one of the carriers, Britain can’t afford to run even one of the carriers. The sooner this registers in Whitehall, the better for all. Docherty is typical of yer bog-standard MP who only sees jobs for his boys and apparently would not know a strategy or a global trend if one bit him in the arse. He thinks he’s clever, arguing that, with him, Labour and the Union, his “jobs of 1500 skilled workers, including 200 apprentices” are secure and taunts the SNP to put all that in jeopardy by going indy and scrapping any carriers. He is playing politics with the jobs of his voters.
Reality is that, after another year when Osborne misjudges things by £111bn, the carriers may be toast anyway, just like the Nimrod replacements. But if they’re not, and Britain really does want these things, an independent Scotland would happily build them (and by staying competitive, stand little risk of losing the contract).
But more likely—and where Mr Docherty and his ilk entirely misses the point—an independent Scotland would require an appropriate Navy. Carriers would be stupid in such a context. A balanced Scottish Navy would include not just a few ex-RN frigates but a series of fast patrol boats that would need to be built to protect North Sea infrastructure. This is a role in which the Royal Navy has been hopelessly inept for some years now and which the scrapping of Lossiemouth’s Nimrods has thrown into stark relief. See my earlier blog for details.
An independent Scotland would have plenty of work for both the Clyde and Rosyth yards. Since its defence budget would not include Trident or Challenger tanks or strategic lift/global deployment, it could afford the real workhorses of local defence that the Scandinavians have specialised in for years. Going after terrorists trying to smoke an oil platform from a RIB with an aircraft carrier (even if it was where it was needed) is like going after a wasp with a 12-gauge.
But a fast patrol craft like the Finnish Hamina—capable of 40 knots, stealth profile, water-jet-powered (for shallow waters) and armed to the teeth—would make short work of any naval El Quaeda. Does the RN have any? Well, er, actually, no. All the money’s gone to Trident, Afghanistan and a couple of carriers. But, building a squadron of, say, six for an independent Scotland would keep Mr Docherty’s constituents very busy for a number of years.
And—most important of all—there would be a use for them.