PARLIAMENT: Sturgeon told SNP shipbuilding record ‘sinks case for independence’

Thursday 17 November 2022

HMS Glasgow
Clyde-built HMS Glasgow is expected to be completed later this year.

By Lucy Ashton

Nicola Sturgeon was told that her record on shipbuilding had “sunk” the case for independence at First Minister’s Questions today, after a defence expert said there was “no future” for warship-building in an independent Scotland.

Earlier this week, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced a £4.2 billion contract to build Royal Navy warships on the Clyde, which would support around 4,000 jobs.

However, Keith Hartley – a professor of economics and a defence expert for the United Nations and the European Defence Agency – said he “didn’t see a future” for Scottish warship-building in an independent Scotland.

Tory leader Douglas Ross, pictured above with Nicola Sturgeon and Rishi Sunak,  criticised the First Minister’s “appalling” shipbuilding record, revealing that the UK Government has delivered seven warships in Scotland in the same time the SNP completed one solitary ferry.

It comes after almost half of Highlands and Islands businesses told a survey that unreliable transport links posed a risk to their future, and islanders on Uist were left with food shortages last week.

Scottish Conservative Leader, Douglas Ross said:Rishi Sunak has announced a £4.2 billion contract to build five warships on the Clyde and support around 4,000 jobs – yet this massive boost to Scottish shipbuilding is only possible because we’re part of the United Kingdom.

“This week a UN defence expert confirmed that if the Nationalists ever managed to separate Scotland from the rest of the UK, these Royal Navy ships would almost certainly be built elsewhere, and highly-skilled Scottish jobs would be lost.

“This view is hardly surprising when the First Minister still hasn’t delivered either of the two new ferries being built at Ferguson Marine, despite costs of over £250 million.

“In fact, since 2014, the SNP Government has completed a grand total of just one ferry, in the same time that the UK Government has delivered seven warships.

“Nicola Sturgeon is up separation creek without a paddle.

“The First Minister’s record is appalling. She has failed to build essential ferries for Scotland’s island communities – and we still don’t know for sure when either of the Ferguson ferries will actually launch.

“The First Minister might not want to admit that her shipbuilding record has sunk the case for independence, but she cannot deny that the SNP’s shameful failure to replace lifeline ferries is doing real damage to island communities.”

Nicola Sturgeon replied: “Douglas Ross regularly and rightly challenges me on the delay to the delivery of the ferries, but he should perhaps be careful what he wishes for in the exchange that we are having today.

“On the vessels that he is lauding and that I have welcomed the announcements on, back in 2013, the UK Government said that the first of those vessels would come into service around 2020. Earlier this month, it was reported that the first type 26 will not come into service until October 2028. That is eight years after the proposed date.”

She added: “Let us turn to costs. The Secretary of State for Defence, Ben Wallace, has said that, over the lifetime of the programme, the cost will be £233 million more than was forecast. Perhaps Douglas Ross should turn some of these questions to his colleagues south of the border if he wants to come here and make a big issue of these things in the chamber.

“I have two final points to make. First, if Douglas Ross really believed what he just said about Scotland’s independence movement, he would be desperate for an independence referendum. The fact that he is running scared of an independence referendum proves him wrong.

“Secondly, I welcome the announcements this week for the Clyde, but it is a fact that most people across Scotland and, indeed, the UK who are watching television right now will be watching the chancellor on his feet in the House of Commons announcing significant, deep, real-terms cuts and tax rises.

“That is the price of a Tory Government, and that is why an increasing number of people in Scotland want this country to be independent.”

Douglas Ross said:  “Anyone who is watching the chancellor’s autumn statement will look at what that is delivering rather than the narrative from the fibbing First Minister, who has been caught out many times.

“The narrative from the chancellor today is about a UK Government that is increasing benefits and pensions in line with inflation, increasing spending on health and education, delivering £1.5 billion of extra support to Scotland, and investing in the future of our economy.

“The First Minister had a very long narrative but zero answers. What I am desperate for in the chamber is, finally, an answer from Nicola Sturgeon. She did not answer the question because her Government has delivered one ferry in the same time in which the UK Government has delivered seven warships.  That is seven warships compared with one ferry.

“The UK Government will now build another five frigates in Scotland, but we do not know when the SNP will complete and deliver a ferry. The SNP’s failure is having a real impact on people and livelihoods throughout Scotland.

“Half of Highlands and Islands businesses have said that ferry cancellations are posing a risk to their future. Just this week, we have heard from islanders who are again enduring food shortages.

“The First Minister might not want to admit that her shipbuilding record has sunk the case for independence, but will she at least accept that her Government’s failure to replace lifeline ferries is doing massive damage to our island communities?”

Ms Sturgeon wound up: “I have said on many occasions that the impact on our island communities of the delays to the ferries is deeply regrettable, which is why the Government, with Ferguson’s shipyard, is putting so much focus on delivering the ferries.

“When Douglas Ross comes to the chamber and lauds five type 26 frigates, he is right to do so—I have welcomed that announcement—but, before trying to make a comparison with ferries, he probably should have reflected on the fact that the first of those type 26 vessels will come into service eight years after it was planned to do so and at a significant cost overrun. If he wants to trade these things, he should at least understand the facts that he is basing his arguments on.”

She added: “I have already talked about the impact on our island communities, and I repeat that, but what is having a significant impact on the lives and the livelihoods of people across Scotland is what the Chancellor of the Exchequer is currently setting out in the House of Commons.

“If Douglas Ross wants to talk about the interruption to food supplies across the whole of the UK that has been caused by Brexit, perhaps we might focus on that or on the £55 billion black hole at the heart of the UK finances, caused largely by a combination of Brexit and Tory economic mismanagement, which the chancellor has just said is being filled by tax rises and spending cuts—more than half of it by spending cuts.

“Budgets for this Government, set at a time when inflation was 3 per cent, are now being eroded by inflation at more than 10 per cent, which is having a devastating impact on people, businesses and public services across our country …”

Recently, Professor Keith Hartley, Emeritus Professor of Economics at the University of York told the Scottish Affairs Committee there was no future for defence shipbuilding in an independent Scotland. 

When asked by Douglas Ross if he believed there was ‘a future to defence shipbuilding in Scotland’ should the country become independent from the rest of the United Kingdom, Hartley replied, “No. Sorry!”

He added: “I am quite [unequivocal] you do not, an independent Scotland will presumably have a minute navy, it would be like, for example, Ireland with offshore patrol vessels, it won’t have a demand for deep water frigates and destroyers of the sort being built like the Type 26 and the Type 31 currently being built in Scotland.

“It won’t have that demand, it couldn’t afford them anyhow. A unit for the Frigate Type 31 Frigate is £250 million at least.

“Now I don’t know the size of the independent Scotland’s defence budget but it is not going to be large. I don’t think they will put a lot of resources into building advanced warships.

“So in short I don’t see a future for a Scottish warship building industry in an independent Scotland.” (Scottish Affairs Committee, 14 November 2022, link).

Picture top of page: The ferry Glen Sannox is still under construction at the nationalised Fergusons shipyard on the Firth of Clyde at Port Glasgow.

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