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Why we must fight to make sure manufacturing is part of our economic future

The slow demise of the Caley rail works is a stark illustration of the results of free-market economics, says STUC leader GRAHAME SMITH

LAST week I had the pleasure of attending Unite’s Scottish executive committee to present it with a painting gifted to me to mark my service on the board of the Glasgow North Regeneration Agency. 

I represented the STUC on the board from its inception in the late 1980s and through the ’90s. 

The agency had been established as a consequence of one of the many downsizing exercises undertaken at the St Rollox rail works in Springburn, better known in the west of Scotland and beyond as the Caley. 

It existed to provide a range of employability services, including retraining and careers advice, to support workers made redundant from the Caley and other workplaces in the areas, funded mostly by the EU with contributions from the council and a legacy from British Rail Engineering Limited (BREL), the then owners of the site. 

Until then, the painting had hung in the STUC’s headquarters in Woodlands Road and, given our pending relocation to new, smaller, and more fit for purpose, premises in the east end of Glasgow, it needed a new home. 

It depicted an almost everyday event when, in the 19th century, the Caley operated at its maximum — a newly manufactured locomotive leaving the works for its journey through Springburn to the docks in Glasgow to be exported to southern Africa, New Zealand, Australia or some other developing economy in what was then the British empire.   

The St Rollox locomotive works was built in 1856 for Caledonian railway. 

At its height it employed 4,000 workers, from working-class communities, mostly in skilled occupations. 

It was part of a cluster of rail works in the north of Glasgow that lasted for over a century — the Hydepark works, the Atlas works and the Cowlairs works. 

Given the association of Unite’s predecessor unions with the Caley, and its recent “Rally Roon the Caley” campaign aimed at saving the last remnants of the site from full closure, it was the painting’s natural home.

It is, of course a painting of historical significance. It depicts our working-class industrial heritage, and the contribution of our class and the unions that represent it, to economic and social progress. 

It illustrates well the dignity of labour or, in the words of classic liberal philosophers — that all wealth is the product of labour, and that without labour, nothing prospers. 

The history of the Caley is also a stark reminder of the utter devastation wrought on traditional manufacturing industry by the Tory governments of the ’80s and ’90s. 

The decline of heavy engineering on the Clyde is symbolised by the Caley. It’s as clear an illustration as one can get of the total failure of monetarist, free-market economics and the abandonment of public ownership and interventionist industrial policy. 

In 1948, the Caley was taken into public ownership as part of rail nationalisation. Until 1986, under BREL, it remained the primary British Rail Scottish repair centre.  

BREL and its Caley site was starved of investment and run down by the Tories in preparation for privatisation. 

BREL was privatised in 1988 and over time, the site was reduced in size and the surplus land sold off. 

What remained of the works passed into the hands of a series of private operators, ending with the most recent owners, Mutares, instigating what may turn out to be the final act in the long, slow demise of the Caley, when it shut up shop last year, despite a heroic campaign led by Unite and the local community. 

The site is now home to among others Tesco, Costco and Lidl. Such is the history of the deindustrialisation of Glasgow and the west of Scotland and other former industrial powerhouses. 

Our economy will fail to overcome the great challenges of our time — automation, demographic change, Brexit and the climate crisis — and will fail to do so fairly and justly if policy continues to be based on the economic orthodoxy of which the likes of the Caley has been a victim. 

It has made the British economy and British business ill-equipped for the uncertain future we face, much more so than elsewhere.  

There is zero prospect of the new Westminster government instigating a change of course. It is even more to the right than the Thatcher government it seeks to emulate. 

We face the real prospect of a very hard or no-deal Brexit and an approach to trade that will sacrifice workers’ rights and social protections, what’s left of manufacturing, as well as basic democratic accountability and the direct provision of key public services, including our NHS, for quick and dirty deals. 

That may serve the interests of the Tories’ financier friends but certainly not those in areas whose economic past was much more successful than its present decline, including many whose votes put them in power. 

The history of the Caley is a reminder of the need to continue the fight. Unite’s Rally Roon the Caley campaign may not have succeeded — yet. 

But, as with the STUC’s Fife Ready for Renewal campaign, launched with Unite and the GMB to fight for the future of the BiFab yards in Burntisland and Methil, it demonstrated our commitment to make manufacturing part of our economic future. 

The mass protest and civic society mobilisation against TTIP demonstrated that workers and communities are prepared to fight for what they value. 

Unions provide leadership then and will do so again. We will continue to resist and to organise. 

And we will put at the top of our demands a credible industrial strategy, with a central role for public ownership and fair work, and an approach to trade that respects the demands of workers and devolved political institutions and the non-regression of rights, and delivers high-quality jobs, and a genuinely just transition to an inclusive, net-zero carbon economy.    

Grahame Smith is general secretary of the Scottish Trades Union Congress.

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