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Why Britain once ruled the waves

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Throughout the 19th and early 20th Centuries, Britain had a flourishing shipbuilding industry, developed in part for protection and in part for trade. In 1914, Britain produced more ships than all other countries put together and shipbuilding employed around 300,000 men; countless others provided the engines, boilers, fittings and steel (around one third of British steel was used by the shipbuilding industry). This strong economic and market position seemed unassailable, and in some ways it was. Demand from the British navy and the merchant fleet would feed the industry.

Initially, the First World War had little impact on the industry. However, with the advent of submarine warfare, the increase in ship losses meant that shipbuilding became a priority. Britain still had to import much of her food and raw materials, and merchant shipping would be needed to win the war; as David Lloyd George said, "The road to victory is to be found in one word... ships; in a second word - ships; in a third word - ships." The drive to produce more ships expanded the workforce. However, changes in work practices, slackening of strict demarcation lines, and fear of 'dilution' - bringing new workers into traditional skilled jobs - brought opposition from the traditional unions. Clydeside saw the formation of a militant group called the 'Clydesiders', leading to industrial unrest, the temporary setting up of a Workers and Soldiers Soviet, and a 1919 strike resulting in the deployment of troops and tanks in Glasgow.

War-induced expansion had led to overcapacity in the industry that was not immediately apparent, as shipping losses from the war had to be replaced. As world trade decreased, however, so the need for further shipping decreased. Even the staple diet of naval contracts fell with the naval restriction treaties, and by 1929 over a quarter of shipbuilders were out of work - a situation made worse by the concentration of the industry in particular areas of Britain, such as Tyneside and Clydeside, were there was little alternative employment. Other nations too had become shipbuilders, increasing competition and further reducing the market. The new competitors had newer facilities and better technology (the last British dockyard had been built in 1906). British shipbuilders were less keen to invest in equipment and update technology, preferring instead to lay off men when work was slow rather than have expensive machinery lying idle.

Various shipyard owner and government initiatives attempted to alleviate the situation. The owners set up the National Shipbuilders Security in an effort to reduce overcapacity, in effect closing down yards. One yard to be closed was Palmer's at Jarrow in 1934. Two years later, in desperate need of work, the town organised the Jarrow Crusade, a march to London to publicise its predicament. The demise of the town was described by its MP Ellen Wilkinson in the emotively-titled book The Town That Was Murdered (1939).

The government offered limited financial aid and a scrap-and-build scheme for shipping companies. The building of the liner the Queen Mary is indicative of the nature of state aid. The keel was laid down in December 1930, after nearly four years' deliberation by Cunard. A year later, due to the Depression and inability to get further loans, work halted on what was called contract 534, and thework force of 3,000 was sent home. However over 100,000 other workers were affected by the stoppage as subcontractors for fitting out the liner were also hit. It took a merger between Cunard and rival White Star, and a government loan of over £4 million before work began again, resuming in April 1934 with the launch of the fully fitted ship in 1936.

The industry rallied with the advent of war in 1939. The war effort forced some investment and reconstructing of the industry. If ever ships were needed, they were need during the Battle of the Atlantic. Over 150,000 men and women were employed in the industry and the rate of loss of ships to new ship built was just sustained. The end of the war was to see a false dawn. Lost ships needed replacing and initially the ship building industry fared well, with order books full. However, other nations such as Japan and Sweden were building, or rather mass-producing ships by adopting new technologies and building methods developed in the USA, in which ships were prefabricated.

British yards were reluctant to adopt the new building methods. Managers were not used to a competitive market place, and seemed to have a pathological hatred of the workforce. The plethora of unions refused to rethink demarcation lines or work practices, and industrial relations were antagonistic, to say the least. By 1958, Germany and Japan were producing more ships than Britain. Recession and stagnation followed. The oil crisis of 1973 saw the worst shipping depression since the 1930s. Some respite came from the building and launch of prestige projects such as the Queen Elizabeth II and the switch to oil-drilling platforms for the North Sea, but such liners were becoming rarer as air transport became popular and cheaper, while the demand was for bulk and oil tankers.

The government intervened. The Labour Party advocated linking of yards creating, amongst others, the Upper Clydeside Shipyards. Labour finally settled for nationalisation in 1977 with British Shipbuilders which employed 87,000 men and owned over 30 shipyards. The Conservatives continued to prop up the industry but it too turned to a political solution with privatisation in 1983. Shipyards became fiercely competitive over the crumbs of naval contracts, and there was much animosity when assigned contracts were announced, with cries of foul play and financial misdealing. Shipyards closed and even the royal dockyards were threatened. Some yards, such as Swan Hunters, just survived through redundancy, rationalisation, investment and diversification. Others, such as Cammell Laird, closed. Ironically, the 1990s saw an increase in the luxury passenger shipping market and, in a further irony, Cunard announced the building of two new liners. The Queen Mary II was built in France and the Queen Victoria is being built in Italy. British shipbuilders no longer rule the waves.

Simon Baker

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