26 Apr 2015

Life, politics and election in the last commercial shipbuilder on the Clyde

“So that will all come down,” says Jim McColl airily, pointing at the handsome old red-brick facade and entrance to the shipyard.

“Yes – it’s a shame in a way but we need more room to expand the slipway and the yard.”

Wha? Stop. Cut. Rewind.

But yes – you got me right first time.

Here at Inverclyde, near Greenock, a shipyard boss is talking about expansion! Tell me when you last heard that word in relation to a shipyard anywhere in these islands?

A new hybrid ferry for CalMac – the Scottish government-owned island ferry company – is being welded together on the slipway beside us. Launching in December, Monaco-based Scot Jim McColl is in expansive mood as we talk about the excitement of a new ship going down a Clyde slipway.

Read more: Election 2015 live blog

Two more CalMac ferries could soon follow. He’s happy to talk politics and Scotland’s future for business as owner of the Clyde Blowers engineering investment group. Sure, there is the vague businessman’s caveat about supporting any government, but you sense he is going through the motions, not yet quite in gear.

Then he suddenly gets airborne. He agrees with the SNP plan to get full economic control of the purse-strings for Scotland. Moreover, even if it all goes wrong: “There’s a real risk that if you get full fiscal autonomy, it gets screwed up but then you’ve got the chance to get them out and get someone else in. Having the ability to control your own destiny, I think, is important.”

So what kind of powers does Scotland need to attract onward global investment?

“We need to grow more businesses here, and attract more foreign direct investment. To do that, we need people to give people a reason to come here, an advantage. To be given a handout, ‘right you go away and work how to spend that’, it doesn’t feel good.

“You’re on welfare up here. I think it’s not a Scotland/England issue. It’s a south east, and other parts of the UK. We need to devolve more powers to allow the different regions flexibility to give an incentive to businesses.”

Once upon a time there were 40 Clydeside yards. Now Inverclyde is the last remaining commercial yard on the once-busy river.

But it is expanding. I watch Jim McColl waft off in his Bentley with personalised plates, from a place which could soon have over 400 skilled workers from the present 100 or so.

Apprentices are being trained. The fabrication shed will be refurbished and, as said, the old facade will go.

The boss is clearly enjoying rolling with Scotland’s changing times politically and economically. This Labour stronghold may no longer be so.

The men here note it was Alex Salmond who put in a shift to get this place back from the brink only last year. From young apprentices to men with almost 40 years in the yard, there is the sense of a new beginning. A dawn. A sense of something possible.

Sure – this is still Labour by tradition, but it was down all those years that saw shipyard after shipyard after shipyard go. We could not find one single welder or shipwright here who said this area would still go Labour for sure come 7 May.

Even to talk in those terms would, until very recently, have been unthinkable.

But now the SNP is thinkable. Just like expanding a shipyard on the Clyde has become thinkable.

All around us, in the sparking of plate-welding and the hammering of rust-coloured sheet-steel, the old certainties are going down the slip into the Clyde to be washed away.

Follow @alextomo on Twitter

Tweets by @alextomo