I served my apprenticeship as a fitter with Lobnitz and Co., at Renfrew who built dredgers. After my National Service, I did not stay long after returning, and went to work in other industries, before returning to shipbuilding to work at Fairfield in 1965, just before the firm collapsed. I was an active shop steward throughout UCS, Convenor, full-time official, and I am now a national official on the executive of the AEU.
Belatedly, Fairfield had spent a lot of money trying to modernise, although subsequent events were to show that the money had not been well spent. The old management were not up to managing a modern competitive company. When the industry began to face the growing competition from the Japanese, the Scandinavians, and the Germans, they were ill equipped to face it. The more intelligent elements within the shipbuilding industry, and I use the term “intelligent,” advisedly, moved the money into more profitable industries.
In many ways the decline of the British shipbuilding industry was a microcosm of the decline of Britain as a major manufacturing country. You could see that in a number of ways. It was badly run, and was badly managed, and the employees were badly motivated. In other words, it was a catalogue of inefficiency and stupidity. My view is that it was basically down to the employers. That is not to say that there were not working practices and demarcation disputes, and tribalism from the side of the unions. But, basically the motivator for any constructive change in any industry, in my opinion, must be the management. Trade unions are not equipped to fulfil that role, though they can help the management in such a change.
They tell the story that when Fairfield collapsed, the Government brought this new consultant in to advise how they could rescue the yard prior to being taken over by Iain Stewart. He asked one of the managers if they operated critical path analyses, and he though he was talking about a Greek super tanker! So they did not have any basic management skills, or understanding. It was a backward industry, tribal, small-scale in many places.