Seafaring nation faces death of shipbuilding

Half mast: A flag is lowered in the Portsmouth naval base to mark workers’ grief © Getty Images

Portsmouth has been a shipbuilding city since 1497. Now international competition is forcing the closure of its famous yard. Should governments do more to protect traditional industries?

It was a devastating blow for UK shipbuilding, as the defence company BAE Systems announced this week that it would cut 1,775 jobs in Portsmouth, Glasgow, Rosyth and Bristol.

For the cities affected, it is a disaster for local employment and prosperity. In Portsmouth, where all shipbuilding will come to an end, locals were mourning what the MP called a ‘tragedy’: the end of 500 years of local history.

With not enough new orders on their books, BAE said they would not have work for everyone after two aircraft carriers worth £6.2 billion are completed. Glasgow’s two shipyards on the Clyde will be the site for any future Royal Navy building contracts, leading to anger that Scottish jobs are being preserved at the expense of those in England.

But the accusations about political motives masked a larger, looming realisation: that the UK’s traditions as a seafaring, island nation would no longer give it clout in a global competition to win shipping contracts. Even the Ministry of Defence now prefers to have tankers built in South Korea.

Since the late 20th century a similar story has affected sectors of manufacturing and heavy industry across much of the developed world. Skilled jobs disappear as other countries offer to make things cheaper and often faster. It leaves a dilemma for governments: should they prop up uncompetitive homegrown production with public money or let factories and plants die with the terrible consequences for local people?

A thousand jobs are being created in Britain every day, and forecasts of economic growth are rising. But most new roles are being created in, for example, retail and catering, or in offices. So there is a painful contrast between the prospects of those who would be happy to work in computing, in a shop, a restaurant or call centre, and those men who were told this week that their highly skilled but very traditional employment was effectively dying out.

Facing the future

The first known ship built in Portsmouth was launched in 1497, and the yard at one point produced merchant and naval vessels for the rest of the world. Most people in Britain this week felt at least a twinge of sadness to see all this pass into history: as one writer who knows the city well put it, ‘is that all Portsmouth’s future will be – its past?’

For others, the pain for individual families, even entire cities, is a necessary and inevitable consequence of the way global trade now favours low-cost manufacturing in Asia: awarding big government contracts to British plants when they are more expensive is just ripping off the taxpayer. The best reaction Britain could have, they say, is acceptance.

You Decide

  1. Is the end of the Portsmouth shipbuilding business anyone’s fault? If so, whose?
  2. ‘In the future, most jobs will be better done by machines than humans.’ Is this true? What are the implications?


  1. One man interviewed in Glasgow said those affected by job cuts in Portsmouth were ‘working class guys the same as ourselves. We’re obviously relieved, but that doesn’t mean to say that we’ve not got feelings for our comrades.’ Write a group letter from Glasgow to Portsmouth.
  2. Study the Mary Rose and a modern warship and compare the skills and manufacturing methods used to produce them.

Some People Say...

“Change is always painful, but not everyone suffers equally.”

What do you think?

Q & A

This is sad. But I don’t live in any of these places.
Fair enough. But similar problems have beset other cities and other branches of industry, and will do again. These stories matter even to young people because the patterns being played out will change the types of jobs available in the future, and alter things like family life.
How come?
The vast majority of the jobs lost in heavy industry are full-time, traditionally male occupations. Meanwhile, the big growth in employment is from women of all ages, including mothers, entering employment in greater numbers. This affects things like how a family decides to share parenting and who earns the greatest proportion of family income: a big change in traditional roles.

Word Watch

Aircraft carriers
The Ministry of Defence contract to build two aircraft carriers, with an enormous price tag, is controversial already because the cost to British taxpayers keeps rising. But BAE Systems and other defence manufacturing businesses are almost totally dependent on government work.
Government insiders admitted on Wednesday that the looming decision by Scottish voters on whether to stay part of the UK had been discussed as part of the preparations for the BAE announcement – they were accused of buying off the Scots. But ministers warned yesterday that a vote for an independent Scotland in next October’s referendum would probably then result in the work being shifted back south of the border.
There is no firm answer to the question ‘how long has Portsmouth been making ships’, but this is the earliest recorded date for a ship being built and launched there. The famous Mary Rose, a boat from the Tudor era that sank and was then recovered, was also a product of Portsmouth. It has now been restored and can be visited at the docks. So can HMS Victory, which was Admiral Lord Nelson’s flagship.


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