It’s hard to find many places more steeped in naval history than Portsmouth. This is where ships set sail to take on the Spanish Armada, where Nelson headed off for the Battle of Trafalgar and where D-Day was planned and launched.
But nowadays this city of 200,000 on England’s south coast isn’t making much history. Decades of military cutbacks have turned sections of Portsmouth’s sprawling shipyards into museums and diminished the Royal Navy’s presence. Streets and pubs along the waterfront that were once filled with rowdy sailors are now visited by tourists and navy buffs, if at all.
And now perhaps the harshest blow to the city’s morale: BAE Systems has announced it is closing its shipbuilding operation. To many, the announcement seemed unimaginable. Portsmouth has been building naval ships for at least 500 years, and the BAE yard was the last of its kind in England. For a country that once ruled the waves, shipbuilding is a thing of the past.
Many people are lining up to fight the decision with protests, petitions and heated messages to politicians. For them BAE’s announcement hits not only at the local economy – nearly 1,000 jobs will be lost – but at the very reason the city exists.
“It’s about the psyche of the place,” said Gerald Vernon-Jackson, Portsmouth’s lead councillor, which is akin to a mayor. “We were built for the Navy.”
Indeed it was King John who first saw the military potential of the harbour, with its narrow entranceway and tricky navigation. He established Portsmouth as a naval base around 1200 and ordered construction of the first dockyards. Shipbuilding began in earnest in the late 1400s under Henry VII, and Henry VIII built his famous flagship the Mary Rose here in 1511 (it sank in 1545 and is now on display in the harbour).
For the next four centuries, Portsmouth remained a critical naval hub – building, servicing and launching ships that went off to fight in some of Britain’s greatest battles. By the First World War, more than 20,000 people worked in the yards, turning out the most sophisticated ships of the day – such as the Dreadnought, which revolutionized naval warfare with its 10 giant guns and steam turbines that made it the fastest battleship on water. Portsmouth built or serviced everything from destroyers to frigates to submarines, and the city’s population soared as workers poured in from across the country.
But in the aftermath of the Second World War, the navy gradually fell out of favour with budget-conscious governments, and the number of ships fell dramatically. The Royal Navy has gone from 50 frigates and destroyers in 1991 to 19 today. The last major naval project was the construction of two aircraft carriers, which began about 10 years ago. Much of that work has been done by BAE in Portsmouth, but one ship is nearly finished and now the other one will be completed at the company’s yards in Scotland.
Civilian shipping has fared even worse. Britain produced 40 per cent of the world’s new merchant ships in the 1950s, and the country had 32 major shipbuilding yards as recently as 1977. Today, there are no major civilian shipbuilding centres. Like just about every other country, Britain buys most of its ships from Asia – in particular South Korea, where roughly 80 per cent of all ships are built.
“The last ship totally built in the U.K. was in 1997,” said Richard Clayton, editor of a British shipping publication called IHS Fairplay. “We just don’t need these shipyards any more.” He and others noted that the only shipbuilding left on any scale is a handful of contracts for the Navy, and most of that could be contracted out to Asian builders at a fraction of the cost.
The Portsmouth yard has also been caught up in something else: politics. BAE and the Ministry of Defence have said that a series of new, smaller naval craft will be built at BAE’s two yards in Scotland. Many in Portsmouth saw that as a bid to win over Scots ahead of a referendum on Scottish independence next year. Prime Minister David Cameron has insisted the decision was based on economics and many experts have agreed, noting that the Scottish yards are better equipped than Portsmouth for the work, and that even with the new contract, BAE is cutting roughly 800 jobs in Scotland.
But on Wednesday, the government’s Secretary of State for Scotland, Alistair Carmichael, threw politics back into the mix, suggesting that if the Scots do leave the union, the work could move again, this time back to England because Britain would not want to have its warships built in another country. All of which has left people in Portsmouth scratching their heads.
“We’d be pretty naive to think [the referendum] didn’t come into the equation,” said Portsmouth MP Mike Hancock, who sits as an independent. “I think there’s a real fear that if two yards in Scotland had closed, there would be obviously a gift to [Scotland First Minister] Alex Salmond and the nationalists.”
For BAE workers like Charlie Robertson, 62, there has been a feeling of inevitability for months in Portsmouth, ever since work on the aircraft carriers began to wind down. Mr. Robertson has spent a lifetime in the shipping industry, first in Scotland and then in Portsmouth, where he moved about a year ago chasing what work was left. Now he isn’t sure if he has a job in either place. “It’s very silent,” he said about the mood inside the plant. He’s also among those who believe the government had a political agenda in the decision. “I think the government has used it to try and keep Glasgow in line,” he said.
There will still be thousands of marine-related jobs in Portsmouth, mainly servicing and refitting naval ships. And the city remains the head office of the Royal Navy. But something will be missing once the BAE yard shuts down, said long-time resident Alan Scott.
Standing near the waterfront on a recent drizzly evening, Mr. Scott, 68, talked about the days when almost everybody worked at the shipyards or served in the Navy. “I was a naval cadet, my father was a royal marine,” he said, adding that he started out as a boat builder but ended up running a printing business.
He nodded toward Queen Street, the main road next to the docks which was nearly empty. “If you walked on to Queen Street you would just see hundreds of sailors going backwards and forward,” he said with a smile. “It’s the roots, it’s the heritage of the city,” he said emphatically. “It’s in my heart.”