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Tuesday, April 13, 1999 Published at 12:01 GMT 13:01 UK


'Blood and sweat' of the River Clyde

Govan shipyard: Future hangs by a thread

Dr Charles Woolfson, Senior Lecturer in Industrial Relations at Glasgow University, writes for BBC News Online

As Scotland stands on the threshold of its new parliament, it is deeply ironic that the future of the Govan yard now hangs by a thread.

It was the Govan shipbuilding yard, together with John Brown's Clydebank and the Stevens yard at Linthouse which provided the crucible of the famous Upper Clyde shipbuilders work-in of 1971.

It was a workers' occupation which raised the simple but politically devastating demand for the then Conservative Government of Edward Heath - the demand for the "right to work".

At that time, in the absence of any solution from the deeply compromised leadership of Scottish industry, it was the Upper Clyde shop stewards who articulated the wider aspirations of the Scottish community for a real measure of control over Scotland's economic future.

'Common language'

The shop stewards spoke the common language not just of the shipyards but of a broader coalition of forces, including the small businesses that depended on the yards, the professional classes, the churches and the wider, distinctively Scottish, civic community.

[ image: Workforce has done all in its power to make yard profitable]
Workforce has done all in its power to make yard profitable
Jimmy Reid, Sam Barr and Jimmy Airlie effectively led this powerful alliance of forces which convincingly identified the economic dogma of free market forces as the political enemy of the Scottish people.

Perhaps no surprise then, and here lies the irony, that this very industrial struggle which began as a defence of shipyard jobs, launched the revival and modern incarnation of the movement towards Scottish political devolution.

The Scottish Convention which gave birth to the new parliament, itself was created from the political momentum for change launched by the work-in at Upper Clyde.

Whether that new parliament will have any real say over Scotland's economy remains to be seen. The crisis at Govan is an acid test for our new homegrown would-be political masters.

Political bogeyman

Faced with the same threat to shipbuilding on the Clyde today we have to recognise that much has changed in the last 30 years.

The "U-turn", another political bogeyman of modern Conservativism, had its origins in the Heath government's reversal of economic policy.

This resulted in a shift back to strategic regional investment and support.

When Margaret Thatcher declared that "the lady was not for turning" it was the turnabout of her predecessor in relation to the Upper Clyde she was denouncing.

Full employment and the expectation that working people can plan their future has been destroyed in the intervening years along with the bulk of Scotland's industrial manufacturing base.

In that sense the Govan yard is too easily characterised as a hangover from a nearly forgotten industrial era, an era when coal was dug, steel was forged and men made ships that had "Clyde Built" stamped on them in blood and sweat.

'Metal-bashing thunder'

The brave new world of post-Thatcher Britain inherited by the brave New Labour government is to replace the thunder of metal-bashing and the roar of slipway drag chains with the chatter and click of call-centre keyboards.

The industrial army of welders, caulkers, boilermakers and joiners is to be substituted by the new invisible virtual sweatshops of the 90s.

As the industrial obituary writers sharpen their pens to declare the final demise of the last great Clyde tradition, questions remain however.

If the workforce at Govan have done all in their power to make the yard profitable in terms of offering co-operation and flexibility that would have been unthinkable 30 years ago, if most of the world's trade is still transported by sea, if other countries can subsidise their merchant marine building capacity, then why should the Govan yard yet again be the sacrificial "lame duck" to be disposed of regardless of the social and human consequences?

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