Argument built on sand

Edifice of an argument built on foundations of sand

I read with some interest – and an increasingly sinking feeling – the article by Mike Danson in the last issue called ‘Accounting for Trident’. As Convenor of the manual unions for Babcock at the Clyde Naval Base, I am used to all sorts of public debate taking place about the jobs my members and the other thousands of people who work at the base do. However, Mike Danson’s piece hit a new low in terms of misunderstanding what happens at the base and how many jobs rely on Britain’s nuclear submarine fleet being based there.

Danson repeated a claim that only 520 people at the Clyde rely directly on Trident for their jobs. This is based on a Freedom of Information request tabled by Scottish CND in 2012. The answer given by the MoD is accurate but would confuse most casual observers and Danson has sought to capitalise on this confusion.

‘Trident’ is the name of the missile system used on the nuclear deterrent Vanguard Class submarines (or SSBNs in MoD speak). ‘Trident’ has also entered into common parlance as short hand for the whole deterrent system, including the submarines. So when the MoD says 520 work on Trident, they mean the missiles.

In fact, 6,500 people at HMNB Clyde depend on the submarine fleet being based there and this will increase to 8,000 when the new Successor submarines come into service. It is also worth pointing out that HMNB Clyde is the home base for Britain’s Astute submarines, which are nuclear powered but conventionally armed (or SSNs). It is not clear from Danson’s article whether he is in favour of, or opposed to, nuclear powered submarines with conventional weapons being housed on the Clyde, but many of those who call for ‘Trident’ to be scrapped also call for a nuclear free Scotland and that, presumably, means removing Astutes and Vanguards.

Danson spends many column inches explaining how it is a relatively straightforward task to redeploy 520 people, but his whole argument is based on a false premise. It is like asking how many people at Glasgow Airport directly rely on planes landing or taking off for their jobs, and then answering it is only the people who drive the tractors to move planes to the runway, or the people who wave them in with their lollipops. In reality, of course, without planes there would be no airport. It is exactly the same at HMNB Clyde – no submarines = no base and no jobs.

Diversification seems to be coming back into vogue on the left. In reality, many of our union comrades in the defence industry have been arguing for diversification for decades, with little success. This has been due to lack of political will, a reluctance on the part of defence companies to diversify, barriers to entry in new or adjacent markets, or a combination of all. Danson points out the US enacted legislation to force diversification. That is true, but it builds in long timescales and significant investment, neither of which have historically been present in Britain. Where there has been success, for instance with our sister site at Rosyth, long-term, secure jobs in defence have been replaced with insecure short-term work with much reduced employment numbers.

I have no problem in debating the merits of a diversification policy, but it would take a brave and foolhardy convenor to stand up in front of members in jobs that will be secure for decades with good terms and conditions and ask them to put that at risk on the basis of a political principle.

I represent real people in real jobs, with real families to house, clothe and feed. If we are going to talk about diversification, let’s have a grown up, well-informed debate, not an exercise in posture politics and selective vision. Ignoring inconvenient facts serves no-one in such a debate and will only serve to further alienate thousands of workers at HMNB Clyde whose futures many seem keen to debate, but few do so on the basis of truth.

Derek Torrie became a shop steward and safety rep in 1996 for the AEEU union, becoming a full-time convenor in 2001, continuing to undertake this role today for the Unite union. He is employed by Babcock and works at HMNB Clyde (Faslane & Coulport).