MV Loch Seaforth. The future is, for the moment, German

The West Coast can be a vicious place to set out by ferry. One of the defining memories of my childhood was being thrown across the deck of the boat that used to run the Small Isles route in about 1990. Its superior replacement the Loch Nevis was built in Troon, but CalMac ships built in Scotland are increasingly rare.

The strange kind of command economy demanded by defence spending means that Scotland has several shipyards devoted to the building of large military vessels, but remarkably little in the way of medium-sized capacity. For a country with a functioning fishing industry and a fair few ferry routes, the idea that Scotland should have a crisis in shipbuilding is absurd, to say the least, but that is exactly what has happened.

In the Dunfermline by-election Rosyth reared its head. As everyone raced to ‘get around the table’ over Grangemouth there were also empty promises to Rosyth, but nobody had any kind of vision for Scotland’s marine industries beyond competing for military orders. Neither is it a question of globalization through markets. The next addition to the CalMac fleet, MV Loch Seaforth, is currently being built in that well known developing country Germany. Whatever some might say, it does not show a lack of solidarity with neighbouring countries if you try and support your own country’s industry.

Because Scotland’s major shipyards are controlled by one central player – BAE Systems – they will always be BAE’s assets. They cannot diversify because BAE manufacture military vessels, but when there are no military vessels to make, what happens then? BAE are not a state company and have no obligation to create employment anywhere. They have no interest in manufacturing non-military vessels, and Scotland might have the shipyards but you’ll be hard pushed to find a CalMac or Northern Isles ferry built on the Forth or the Clyde even if they probably should be.

In the event of independence Scotland will most likely inherit some assets from the Royal Navy, but it will also need to build its own. If Scotland is serious about its new international role it will involve activities such as peacekeeping, anti-piracy and aid work that require frigates, though perhaps not destroyers.  There will be obligations in terms of Arctic security and the North Atlantic and the equipment needed to meet them. This might mean an end to aircraft carriers, but diversification of Scotland’s marine industry would be more sustainable for all. With the right planning we could see the Marine Patrol Vessel MPV Robin Harper and the North Sea ferry MV Suðrland being built across the water from one another on the Clyde.

The all or nothing approach to industry by both sides in the referendum campaign is testament to a lack of imagination and an obsession with the very big over the diverse. It pays not to have all your eggs in one boat.