last year, PEP produced a dispassionate and critical pamphlet about the deplorable state of British shipbuilding. The leaders of the industry reacted like cavalry generals who had just been told by Capt. Liddell Hart that the tank was here to stay: they refused to be driven into the Twentieth Century by a lot of loudmouthed metropolitan planners and college-boys. The Chairman of the Shipbuilding Advisory Council has since resigned because of the sheer inertia of the industry. The Unions have been noticeably reluctant to consider modernisation plans, partly through genuine fear of redundancy, partly because it could destroy the craft basis of the industry, so narrowly reflected in the union structure. If the Government insisted upon modernisation as a condition of financial help, the workers would stand to suffer considerable dislocation: the callous stupidity of labour relations in shipbuilding is reminiscent of the era of Uncle Tom’s Cabin rather than of Crossbow.
Since the days when Jarrow was a symbol—not just another Redevelopment Town—the industry has not been prepared to expand. The attitude has been that it was idiotic to grow during a boom, only to be caught in the next slump with large, unprofitable capital commitments. The industry has therefore jogged along. In the meantime, because our yards were unable to cope with world demand, the Germans, Swedes and Japanese created strong, modern yards, quietly capturing the markets between them. Yet Swedish workers are better paid and have more security of employment than British ones. There may have been no demarcation disputes abroad—but then, there has been no managerial complacency, nor contempt for customers either.
Then the recession came. The British yards, bellies stuffed with six year order-books, thought their theories would be justified: the over-ambitious Germans and Japanese would collapse, the “modest” British would ride out the storm. Instead customers started to cancel orders, and they got no new ones. When the squeeze came, the customers turned to the more modern and efficient yards abroad, where investment in new productive capacity had been made at the crucial time: by 1956, after all, the Germans and the Swedes were constructing ships as fast as the Japanese, and all of them twice as fast as Britain. Even British shipowners deserted the industry: like the customers of steel, they felt no allegiance to their suppliers for the years of delays and insults they had endured.
A few of the more modern yards—especially in the North-East—have enough unprofitable orders to enable them to pay their overheads. Some of the big yards are busy with new passenger liners. But the middle-size yards, particularly on the Clyde, are in a desperate state. Nor is the situation entirely just. Three of the least
There are important lessons to be drawn from this record of failure. The dictum that “large firms are serving the nation well” does not bear any relation whatsoever to the shipbuilding industry. The industry has failed either to expand or to invest: and the blame falls squarely on both owners and management. Managerial ineptitude, however, has been matched by a failure of the Unions to take anything but a narrowly craft and sectional view of their industry. Yet Britain—even a socialist Britain—will always live by trade: the failure of the shipbuilding industry is at once a local and a national disaster. Some of the blame must be attributed to the Labour Government, which achieved in the post-war period just enough interference to disrupt, without ever having the power or foresight to plan for sustained growth over a long period: the two deadliest sins. Further, it is clear that we must think (for shipbuilding as for other industries) on regional lines: the rehabilitation of Clydeside as an industrial centre, not the rescue of certain inefficient component yards.
The Unions may often be tied, through sectional interests, to retarding policies: but the workers in the yards are certainly aware that their own interests are not being served, in the long run, by working in an obsolescing and inefficient industry. Left to them, shipbuilding would have pulled itself up out of the slough years before. At the same time, even if the industry were nationalised, allowing workers’organisations in the yards a direct say in industrial policy, they should never be in a position, as the shipbuilding masters have been, to hold the whole economy up to ransom because of a gross lack of initiative.