As you read this, there are 13 warships in build or being procured at Scottish shipyards. However, there are thousands of real people on social media that would promise you that no ships are being built – but why?
I’ve even had people on Twitter tell me no ships were being built at Govan… whilst I was standing on one. That 13, by the way, is not counting the now built 5 Offshore Patrol Vessels, the planned Type 32 Frigates or the planned Ukrainian Naval vessel.
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During the run-up to the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, political campaigners hoping that Scotland would remain part of the United Kingdom made a big deal about the then-planned thirteen Type 26 Frigates the Clyde was to build. Those Type 26 Frigates ended up delayed, of course, and to fill the gap one batch of two and another batch of three Offshore Patrol Vessels were ordered to keep the workforce skilled and employed.
Then the 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review came, and long story short it resulted in the change from thirteen Type 26 frigates to eight Type 26 Frigates to be built at Govan and five Type 31 frigates to be built at Rosyth. Due to commercial considerations, budget issues and a delay to work starting on the new frigates… thirteen ships at one yard became eighteen at two yards.
More work for more people at more locations, that’s a good result isn’t it? The shipbuilders seem to think so. I spoke to a contact who wishes to remain anonymous, he told me:
“This is great for the industry, a second yard building complex warships keeps more people in work and sets the yards up for larger programmes of follow-on work. It’s no secret that we’ll likely be building the Type 45 replacement, we’ve got work for decades and now so does Babcock at Rosyth.”
Well, if all is so good why am I writing this? Because despite this information being easily verifiable and heavily reported, people seem unaware of it. A good example would be the comments under any shipbuilding article we publish. Even in response articles detailing which ship will be built where, when the contract was signed, what type it is etc we’ll still get comments repeating one of the myths from people that haven’t read the article.
‘We were told this in 2014!’, ‘The ships were cancelled!’ or ‘More lies from Wastemonster’, anyone?
It finally happened, we've went full circle. A comment like this has appeared on article discussing comments like this. pic.twitter.com/4PzJriUpdI
— UK Defence Journal (@UKDefJournal) November 4, 2021
For more on those myths, have a look here. It’s a list of the most common ones I encounter.
I even made a video about it.
So, why is this happening?
Jonathan Chartier, a defence commentator, took a detailed look at this. He said that one key issue that has had significant influence over the often torrid debate when it comes to military ship building in Scotland is the reduction of the Type 26 procurement from thirteen to eight vessels.
“The often passionate arguments from those who support and oppose Scottish independence makes a balanced view of military ship building in Scotland and its future difficult as it can often end up with people shouting their ‘preferred’ facts at each other over social media rather then examining the issues. With warship construction consolidated on the Clyde Type 26 was projected to be a build of thirteen vessels again through multiple batches in keeping with common practice, for those familiar with military ship building the thirteen projected was at best a placeholder subject to change.”
“Certainly it was well known in the period after the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security review it was clear that the equipment programme was again coming under extreme financial pressure again. In that circumstance it was unfortunate with a Scottish Independence referendum in the running David Cameron and the Better Together campaign unwisely turned routine procurement that could be subject to change into a political football by making it a direct promise to Scotland; thirteen Type 26 Frigates would be built on the Clyde alongside a new ‘Frigate Factory’. The Labour Party exacerbated the situation with a leaflet spelling out that if Scotland remained in the Union it would get 13 Type 26 frigates. The Prime Minister and other Ministers plus representatives of the Better Together Campaign regularly spelled out that a Scotland in the Union would be getting thirteen Type 26.”
Chartier explains where the idea that promised have been broken has come from.
“So when the referendum was over and won for Better Together, the reality that Thirteen Type 26 was not deliverable within the allocated budget set in. A few months after cast iron guarantees for thirteen Type 26, the order was cut to eight as part of the 2015 Strategic Defence and Security with a compensatory order for five General Purpose frigates proffered and some Offshore Patrol vessels ordered in their place.
Considering what was promised in very clear terms by the Prime Minister, Better Together and other Parties including Labour it is understandable why Scottish Nationalists have fixated on it as a totemic issue. Put simply thirteen Type 26 was a core promise by Better Together in the Independence campaign that has been, technically, broken. Of course the more nuanced point to be considered is that Scotland gained five River class Batch II Offshore Patrol Vessels and five Type 31 Frigates (plus a ‘frigate factory’ in Rosyth) as compensation for the loss. For a look at what Scottish shipyards are planning on building, this UK Defence Journal article goes into detail.”
He concludes, “Sadly this angry debate is set to continue with accusation, counter accusations and many a myth spun but in all this it does show the danger of politicising military shipbuilding”.
The change from thirteen Type 26 to eight Type 26, framed as a broken promise by some, has grown arms and legs and turned into the claim that no ships are being built in Scotland. People are, sadly, so confident of this that even in response to a photo of a ship being built on the Clyde… they are keen to argue that no ships are being built on the Clyde.
It seems very clear that social media, rather than the people using it, is to blame.
Social media encourages echo-chambers in which confirmation bias runs rampant. Essentially, people are shown news items that confirm what they already believe. Our social media feeds are personalised based on past clicks and likes behaviour, so we mostly consume political content that are similar to our views.
Without realising it, we develop tunnel vision.
Rarely will our comfort zones expose us to opposing views, and as a result we eventually become victims to our own biases. There are some studies that measure echo chamber effects, such as the study of Bakshy et al. (2015). In this study, they found that people tend to share news articles they align with. In addition to this, they discovered a homophily in the friendships online, meaning people are more likely to be connected on social media if they have the same political ideology.
This isn’t unique to Scotland, or shipbuilding, or any political party. It is a symptom of how social media influences debate. I don’t know how to fix it, I only know that it should be fixed.