For Scottish shipbuilders, is the choice independence or employment?

As Scots go to the polls in today's referendum, workers in Glasgow's once-mighty shipyards are worried a 'yes' vote might cost them – since their main contractor is Britain.

Paul Hackett/Reuters
'No' campaigners John Reid (c.) and Johann Lamont (r.) walk along the banks of the River Clyde in Glasgow on Monday, to meet with shipyard workers and highlight the risks of independence to Scottish jobs.

A century ago, the Scottish city of Glasgow was known as "the shipbuilding capital of the world." The sobriquet was well-earned: At its peak before World War I, some 70,000 people were directly employed in 19 shipyards dotted along the broad banks of the River Clyde.

The halcyon days when the sound of hammers and tongs sang out across Glasgow are long gone. But the shipbuilding industry still employs around 10,000 Clydesiders – mainly in the defense sector – making it a key battleground for today’s historic referendum on independence. Can Glasgow's shipyards survive if Scotland breaks away from Britain, their primary contractor?

Many union representatives in the handful of shipyards that remain on the Clyde have called for a "no" vote, arguing that independence would scuttle lucrative defense contracts upon which the surviving yards depend.

"We believe there's a lot of risk involved in voting for independence because our main customer is the UK Government through the Royal Navy – and the policy there is not to order naval ships from outside the UK. So we believe there's a direct threat to our jobs,” says Duncan McPhee, an organizer for Unite, one of the UK’s largest trade unions.

The campaign against Scottish independence has focused sharply on the risks of ending the 307-year-old union with England. Earlier this week, John Reid, a former Labour Home secretary, said that a "yes" vote would cost jobs in the shipyards. “A 'no' vote is a vote for jobs, better jobs, safer jobs, more jobs,” Dr. Reid said. “A 'no' vote is a vote to protect jobs in future for our children and grandchildren.”

Previously, Ian King, head of defense manufacturer BAE Systems, said that a vote for independence would jeopardize investment in the shipbuilding industry in Glasgow. BAE Systems, which is currently building giant new aircraft carriers for the Royal Navy, is by far the largest employer on the Clyde, with two shipyards. Last year, it was announced that Glasgow would be the main hub for building Ministry of Defense ships, a move widely seen as shoring up support for the status quo in the industry.

Not everyone agrees that leaving the UK would be the death knell for Glasgow’s proud shipbuilding heritage. “There's been no investment in the marine and ship engineering industry,” says David Torrance, a veteran of the 1971 Upper Clyde Shipbuilders (UCS) "work-in," when shipworkers decided to complete orders after the shipyard was declared insolvent, in an effort to show its viability.

Mr. Torrance says shipbuilding on the Clyde has been oriented towards a single buyer – the Ministry of Defense. But “in other countries like Poland, Germany, South Korea, the government is providing low interest rates for loans and subsidizing shipbuilding," he adds. If an independent Scotland provided the shipbuilding industry with similar support – which the UK government hasn't – the shipyards could keep operating.

“It's about political will and some investment," says Tam Brotherson, another veteran of the "work-in," says that the decline of shipbuilding on the Clyde could be turned around. "That's all it needs, all the potential is there to re-open more shipyards.”

Earlier this summer, Torrance and Mr. Brotherson were among seven UCS "work-in" veterans who signed a letter calling for Scots to vote for independence. But among today’s shipyard workers, there seems little appetite for change.

"If it’s a 'yes,' ” says Alastair Semple, who has worked for BAE Systems for the past four years, "I’d be very worried about the long-term future."

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