Popular history has it that the Royal Navy was founded by King Ælfred the Great. It’s not quite accurate – his father, King Æthelwulf also had a fleet of some sort – but the idea of England’s first sailor-king has maintained its powerful hold on the imagination. So if naval shipbuilding in England began in Wessex it seems the wheel has come full circle with its ending at Portsmouth.
The phrase ‘end of an era’ is the body blow most feared by communities that depend upon a single sector. Eras do end though, and Portsmouth’s loss, of 940 jobs, is not the first or the worst to be faced by a shipbuilding community. In 1991, WR was represented at a meeting of the Campaign for the North, held at the King’s Manor in York, once home to the King’s Council in the North Parts, the Tudor and Stuart monarchs’ equivalent of a Government Office for the North. CfN’s John Ellis reported that on Wearside some of the most modern shipyards in Europe were in the process of being demolished. Attempts to rescue them had been frustrated by deliberate government policy: it had already been decided that the industry was to go and enterprise was therefore deemed futile. It was rumoured that Sunderland was sacrificed to save jobs on Clydeside. Building ships was what Sunderland did, and had done for over 600 years. It had a lot in common with Portsmouth – the local papers were printed by the same firm, Portsmouth & Sunderland Newspapers Ltd – though Sunderland focused on civilian ships and Portsmouth built for the Navy.
Portsmouth and Sunderland share something else: a process of transformation driven by faceless organisations not accountable to those most directly affected. Industries are destroyed, communities abandoned as ‘surplus labour’. Governments lack the backbone to intervene early and positively in a farsighted way to make painful transitions less so.
Prioritising Clydeside over Portsmouth looks like a highly political move ahead of next year’s referendum, even though the business case is entirely sound. Downing Street described the closure as being in the ‘national interest’, whatever that is supposed to mean (and it can mean many things). Had it been Wessex agitating for independence, the calculations might not in fact have been any different but the politics would have had a sharper edge and Portsmouth might well have come away with a better deal already agreed. Much of the mitigation is due to be signed-off only today. Despite BAE’s strategic review having been public knowledge for nearly two years, the publicity for the ‘city deal’ still presents its implications as an afterthought, which is what they appear to have been. The staggered timing could perhaps be described as cruel but it is what local politicians wanted, not wanting Whitehall claiming all the credit for others’ work. That’s inevitable in a top-down system. Of course, it’s still possible that if Scotland does vote ‘Yes’ the priority could change again but Portsmouth shouldn’t hold its breath.
Positive intervention now to help the community of Portsmouth get back on its feet is the least we should expect from the London regime. A government that did long-term planning would have started years ago. It hardly comes as a surprise to ministers that naval shipbuilding capacity is going to be cut: they are the ones who place the orders and pay for the clear-out if none are forthcoming. The whole of the defence contracting business is effectively an arm of government, dependent upon its largesse.
Wessex is massively dependent on the UK defence budget. And that is not a good place to be. The military is the largest employer in Wiltshire and has a big presence in Devon, Dorset, Bristol and Hampshire. Its presence is morally inhibiting, in the sense that a necessary speaking-out against the UK’s aggressive foreign policy can seem disloyal to the military communities in our midst. It’s financially and politically debilitating, in the sense that we are dependent not only on public sector cash raised UK-wide but on an aspect of expenditure that is likely to continue to shrink as the remains of the British Empire come apart, and even the homeland starts to fragment.
We’ve been here before, with the defence policy changes in 1956/7 that abandoned the role of coastal batteries, in place since Henry VIII, and cut back an aviation industry that had continued to prosper for over a decade after the end of the Second World War. The result was a wave of mergers, takeovers and restructuring that consolidated that industry to such an extent that only three major groups survived to nationalisation in 1977. The resulting single group is now BAE Systems, which also runs what’s left of naval shipbuilding.
There’s no doubt that Portsmouth will find a new role – relatively easily, given its location – and equally no doubt that it needs both responsible government support and the freedom from centralist controls to be able to get on with utilising its talents. Meanwhile, all of Wessex should ponder where the axe will fall next and how prepared we are for the inevitable ending of the era of British world power.