Gordon Marsden MP: Sailing By – or All at Sea?

The Shadow Minister with responsibility for the maritime sector writes about the implications of Scottish independence for the maritime sector

Hebrides, Fair Isle, Cromarty, Forth…generations of Britons have absorbed a roll-call of Scottish names on the BBC’s shipping forecast at the end of the day – to the sounds of the tune ‘Sailing By’.

They are proud names emblematic of Scotland’s and Britain’s maritime heritage. There are others, Scapa Flow, from where Britain’s warships set forth in WW1 to confront the German Navy at the Battle of Jutland and where the Kaiser’s fleet was scuttled three years later. Clydeside and Rosyth – where ships that kept us safe and fed in two world wars were built – and still are.

It’s a maritime inheritance that has enfolded tens of thousands of non-Scots and brought them to appreciate the grandeur of Scotland’s open seas and coast. People like my Father who served in the Merchant Navy during WWII and then went out all round that Scottish coastline in the 1950’s testing engines made in the North West of England in Scottish sea trials.

That common and continuing inheritance should not be cast aside lightly in the referendum debate. But it’s not just a matter of sentiment. Nearly 41,000 people are directly involved in the Scottish maritime service sector, contributing £2.2 billion to Scotland’s economy. When you add in the supply chain inward, the figure rises to 75,000+ and 3.8 billion.

And yet the SNP Government’s White Paper has left its future and that of the Merchant Navy almost out of the equation. Crucial issues about future employment, shipping taxation, marine insurance, training seafarers – left as blank pages. And when quite rightly employees, trade unions, the UK Chamber of Shipping and others have demanded more detail and assurances, the response from Alex Salmond’s team has done little to remove foreboding.

The naivety with which the SNP have assumed that critical UK pillars that have underpinned Scotland’s maritime infrastructure, the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, the Shipping Registry, The UK Tonnage Tax, and the Maritime Accident Bureau, would simply carry on supporting an independent Scotland beggars belief. They have given no coherent answers or detail on this or how Scottish equivalents could be set up lacking economics of scale or decades of experience.They simply fall back on ‘Vital services will continue after independence’ asserting that the UK’s special arrangements for the industry would be preserved. These assurances are not worth the paper they’re not written on.

Seafarers training and future employment is currently closely integrated across the UK. Generations of Scots have gone on to successful careers in the Merchant Navy in the UK and worldwide, often doing so on the back of excellent training at colleges like the Fleetwood National campus on my constituency’s doorstep in Blackpool.

How will that continue when the SNP Government has given no details of how it could be funded or co-ordinated? How much money would they put into training and would it be able to match the UK sMart funding originally set up by the Labour Government and signed off by Gordon Brown? As for the Tonnage Tax, another UK initiative from John Prescott – how would its details or structures continue in a Scottish version? The SNP’s White Paper is silent on that – or what would happen to shipping companies based in Scotland but tied into the UK tonnage scheme.

Former Scottish Labour MP and Trade Minister Brian Wilson has already pointed to areas, such as the Northern Lighthouse Board, where the cross-subsidy which currently benefits Scots is not likely to be maintained. The SNP White Paper says ‘an independent Scotland will have a well-resourced Coastguard’ blithely assuming the UK MCA would continue to provide a separatist Scotland with its services at a time when the UK Parliament’s Transport Select Committee has publicly warned that the MCA’s capacity is already stretched.

Scottish seafarers are right to worry about whether the special arrangements they currently enjoy in the UK on income tax and national insurance would continue given that the SNP’s White Paper vows to ‘simplify’ the existing UK system.

As for the bigger questions about border controls and goods from Scotland entering the UK and all other EU countries without customs controls, the SNP’s cloud-Cuckoo land White Paper simply assumes it would happen. This is despite numerous warnings that reapplying to join the EU would be a lengthy and unpredictable process.

This and so many other aspects of the Yes campaign invite the old saying ‘if wishes were horses, beggars would ride’.

Two weeks ago I was in Aberdeen, marvelling at the range of vessels using its anchorage and, not least the pilotage skills of those supplying complex, expensive equipment, going out on many of them to offshore oil and gas in the North Sea.

Investment in that crucial industry comes from diverse international sources and the alarm they are showing at the lack of long-term thinking about investment, maritime safety or tax regimes, in the White Paper’s blank pages poses a huge question mark for its future. Right now the port of Aberdeen possesses great advantages as a UK trust port, in terms of its settled structures for expansion and raising capital. How would that valuable status and that of other Trust ports fare in Alex Salmond’s unscripted Nirvana? Absolutely no-one knows.

If Scotland’s shipping industry and maritime traditions go into the melting pot as a result of rejecting the UK, it won’t just be the soothing names in the Shipping Forecast that might go ‘sailing by’ forever. It’ll be the prosperity of hundreds of Scottish businesses and tens of thousands of Scottish jobs and families livelihoods that will be all at sea as well.