A Maritime Vision

Catamarans in Bergen city harbour. Variations could be used for Forth and Clyde urban ferry services

Professor Alf Baird sets out the case to bolster Scotland’s maritime network and says current policymakers won’t ‘rock the UK boat’ when it comes to maritime policy in Scotland. Professor Baird was, prior to his retirement in 2016, Professor of Maritime Business and Director of the Maritime Research Group at Edinburgh Napier University. He has a PhD in Strategic Management in Global Shipping. His specialist area of research and teaching is strategic management in maritime transport. His research activities encompass most of the world’s main shipping markets in Europe, Asia, Mid-East and North and Latin America, and Australasia. 

The vision

Our world is full of former imperial-run colonies that are now independent countries. The leaders of those plundered and exploited countries had no choice but to develop a new confident vision for their people as independent sovereign states. As global trade and hence economic development depends on maritime transport it should come as no surprise that most of these ‘new’ independent countries focused heavily on maritime policies and related projects to drive economic growth and prosperity. In places such as Dubai and Singapore, Ireland and Estonia, and many others besides, the port and maritime sector quickly became the main driver of the economy.

By contrast, Scotland’s maritime transport infrastructure currently sits moribund, mostly useless, certainly visionless, squeezed between our own crumbling colonial-like legacies and Tory sponsored regulatory capture. Look at what remains of our long-since derelict and obsolete major city-ports on the Firths of Forth, Clyde and Tay, where most of the port infrastructure was built when Queen Victoria reigned. These massive yet now largely unused and outdated maritime assets are today owned and regulated ‘Tory-style’ by non-transparent, offshore private equity financial engineers masquerading as port authorities.

These entities have no vision for our country, nor are they tasked with developing Scotland’s international competitiveness; their priority is securing profits from exploiting private port monopolies whilst investing as little as possible in a decayed and outmoded asset base, inevitably leaving a diminished economy in their wake. The remainder of Scotland’s mid-size ports adopt another rather English ‘trust’ style of ownership and regulatory model (as opposed to the Latin or public port model on the continent) which likewise invariably serves the interests of trustees and private interests instead of the public good. 

Scotland’s trade routes

All of this economic dysfunctionality remains devoid of any national shipping policy, something arguably last seen in Scotland around the time of the Darien Scheme in the late 1600’s. Which brings us back to the present reality consisting of Scotland’s outdated obsolete seaports, an embarrassing lack of sophisticated, frequent international shipping connections with the outside world (Ireland has several daily ferry services to the continent, Scotland has none), our worsening international competitiveness as a result, and a stalled and declining long-term trade position. All of this reflects on failed or inadequate UK policies which are still pursued today and constrain Scotland’s development, now made worse by Brexit, even under devolution and an inept ‘Scottish’ Government still run by UK civil servants who aye adhere to Whitehall diktat when it comes to the UK’s international maritime priorities. In this sense Scotland’s distinct international maritime needs and opportunities are never considered, never mind prioritised. In the UK context we remain a peripheral ‘devolved’ region, very much colonial-like; plundered and exploited, for sure, and prevented from developing and reaching our true potential as we would seek to do if an independent state.

The remedy? The vision? Scotland clearly has little option but to focus on selectively developing its national strategic seaport infrastructure aimed at improving competitiveness and expanding international trade, as all former colonies had to do, including Dubai, Singapore, Kenya, Malaysia, Oman, India, Malta, Ireland and many others. ‘In the beginning it was the harbour that made the trade’, as any first-year student of maritime economics knows, and without ports trade cannot flow and economies are unable to grow.

My own research has identified two major national strategic port priorities and opportunities in Scotland: at Cockenzie/Preston Links on the site of the former power station which would be aimed at developing intra-European trade, the latter now made more critical by an enforced Brexit, and; the unique natural deep-water harbour of Scapa Flow positioned at the crossroads between North Sea and Atlantic Ocean aimed at handling and ‘intercepting’ global container transhipment covering a wide array of markets. Combined, these two maritime infrastructure initiatives could easily and rapidly double (or more) Scotland’s current lacklustre levels of international trade, and at relatively limited expense. 

Lacklustre levels of trade

Whilst both port schemes are modest by international standards, they represent a minimum start to enable an independent Scotland to get back on the global shipping scene and to develop trade. Both can be progressed quickly using the standard international port concession model offering long-term tenancies to the preferred global terminal operating companies who would themselves make much of the investment in partnership with the public sector port owner, the latter acting as regulator. This is totally unlike the Tory sell-off privatisations and regulatory-capture ‘model’ that continues to burden Scotland, in ports as it does in other strategic ‘utility’ sectors such as energy, and airports. Both port projects involve brownfield, public-owned sites and would make positive use of existing available landside areas, as well as benefitting from proximity to deep water.

And what about developing Scotland’s international shipping connections? Again, not a difficult challenge given the right expertise and knowledge, also employing the international concession/tendering approach where appropriate. The EU Motorways of the Sea (MoS) policy and processes, which I had some part in developing for the European Commission, can be readily used to attract and select ferry lines to introduce long-term services connecting Scotland with the continent, Scandinavia and elsewhere. The same concession approach may also be used to modernise our island ferry services which badly need new tonnage, and to help develop new urban public-transport ferry services on Clyde, Forth and perhaps also the Tay, the latter an opportunity ignored, yet common internationally.

Other independent countries, many of them ex-colonies, have no difficulty doing all of this and much more, so why should Scotland? The experience of numerous former colonies, now independent countries enjoying vibrant maritime economies demonstrates their can-do attitude, with national liberation providing the freedom to act in the national interest for a change, to set the national vision, instead of constantly being held back from development by imperial diktat. Scotland for now remains stuck in the latter mode, in a colonial rut.

A can-do attitude

And if Scotland really wants to develop shipbuilding capability, again all we need is a can-do pro-active international strategy to be pursued. How can Norway and other countries replace over 100 ferries in the last decade whilst Scotland’s poorly led devolved public agencies within the UK, devoid of expertise or vision, cannot even build two boats? Some of the best global ship designers I have worked with are Scots (forced to do their business outside our homeland), yet Scotland’s public bodies have ignored their proposals to build proven ferry designs in Scotland, proposals I helped put together.

Scotland needs around 100 new ferries in the next 20 years, which should be viewed as an excellent opportunity to kickstart the shipbuilding industry and allow us to develop the ability to compete in international markets too. These ships could be built in Scotland, on the Clyde and at BiFab’s excellent Burntisland site, but this requires the right strategy, expertise, commitment, and national vision, all currently lacking in our limited ‘devolved’ public sector which still retains a UK mindset and policy focus. 

Ferry fiasco

The ongoing fiasco in Scottish shipbuilding, which was rightly described as ‘catastrophic’ according to Holyrood’s REC Committee in respect of CMAL/Ferguson’s, must be remedied, and quickly. Scots ship design specialists are building large numbers of proven ferry designs in Asia and elsewhere, yet our public bodies rejected their offer to do the same here? Instead, our public sector has put in place the usual sort of people who do not have the right skills, international expertise or competence, or vision to develop our shipyards and public maritime agencies properly, which will inevitably lead to further problems. This must change, the people must change, the right global shipping expertise should be deployed and brought in where necessary, and the vision must alter markedly if Scotland is to break free from an enduring colonial-like control and mindset and its inherent industrial development limitations.

A maritime agency

A small, specialist, focused Scottish maritime agency established by government is what is needed to start to take forward a new positive maritime vision and to deliver on these ideas, and others. We could start now, but the UK civil service still running Scotland’s institutions continues to play by UK rules when it comes to international maritime matters, and a devolved Holyrood has been unable to alter that.

The current policy makers won’t ‘rock the UK boat’. Which means that independence will most likely be necessary before any comprehensive maritime vision for Scotland, such as is briefly set out here, can be fully taken ‘on board’ and delivered, as was the case in many former colonies. And even then, positive change can only happen if the right strategy and structures, and most importantly the right people with the necessary expertise, passion and vision for Scotland are put in place.

NOTE: This article was first published in ‘Scotland Speaks’, March 2021

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11 Responses to A Maritime Vision

  1. Rock the Boat – PLEASE! After reading his 10 part ‘plan for Independence’, this clinches it for me. Alfie Baird is the man to lead an independent Scotland – plus a few of his mates. Must-read for all Scots!

  2. Marvellous article-how come we did better with maritime trade routes in medieval times than we do now?.the ferry debacle is an insult to the shipyard workers of Clydeside(my grand father ,my great grandfather and my great uncles). Let us recall all elected MPs and set up a new Scottish Parliament to take ourselves out of the 1707 Treaty of Union!

  3. Kyle More says:

    Everything you say is true however you’re up against powerful vested interests – for instance the interests of an “Empire Building” Calmac/CMAL management and the RMT now coincide, and these interests have virtually nothing to do with providing efficient and reliable ferry services to the communities they are supposed to be serving.

    Floating hotels for pampered crews, over-staffed, vastly over-elaborate terminals and offices stuffed with a high salaried bureaucracy are the priority for these people.

    And a largely incompetent and ignorant Scottish “Government” is allowing them to get away with it.

  4. Michael W says:

    The Late Alan Small at Dundee University would go on endlessly about Dundee’s Baltic trade routes and the Nordic areas generally. He used to travel to Svalbard/Spitzbergen regularly. Its worth remembering Scotland pre Union was an integral part of the Hanseatic League and the guild system.

    It was only when we entered the internal union with England that our external unions dissipated. Woe Betide me to call England the possessive controlling abusive lover.

  5. alfbaird says:

    Michael W, very interesting what you note about Dundee. However, whilst the union certainly had an early impact, the ultimate demise of Scottish international shipping may be more recent. As a young shipping clerk in Leith in the early 70s our company (Currie&Gibson Line) were still at that time running weekly/twice weekly liner services all over Europe and sending trade globally via transhipment to deep-sea services in Amsterdam and Antwerp. Our services also included links to Copenhagen, Hamburg, Rouen/Paris, Lisbon and Leixoes. We were also long-established Scottish agents for a number of ‘national’ lines including Royal Netherlands Steamship and Iceland Steamship.

    We rapidly lost all of this maritime business due to a combination of factors, e.g.:
    – development of motorway system and rail container services giving easier and subsidised land transport connections to ports in southern England
    – development of logistics centres mainly in England via which Scotland is served
    – development of container and ferry shipping technologies
    – the acquisition of Scottish shipping companies by London firms, who closed most of the Scottish operations down
    – the lack of investment in Scottish seaports to cater for new types of ships/logistics, leading to obsolete ports, which is still the case today
    – the absence of any national maritime policy for Scotland

    The result of what is basically a loss of control/loss of sovereignty is that today Scotland is the only peripheral maritime country in Northern Europe without a direct ferry connection with the European mainland. Ireland, Norway, Sweden, Finland and Baltic States all have direct ferry connections with the European centres of trade/population. Even Faroe Islands has a direct ferry connection with the European mainland, and over a much longer distance relative to Scotland-Eur. And in the Med, all North African countries have a direct ferry connection with the European mainland.

    In this respect Scotland is treated as a landlocked country, having to depend on and route any trade it does have via our congested neighbour, England; to some extent this explains our underdeveloped (and narrow specialization) economy and society in terms of trade and international relationships that are normally developed via transport by sea.

  6. Michael W says:

    Its quite frightening what you outline. From my perspective I remember as a Sunday boy footballer travelling to “Holland” and Germany from Hull and Dover. In later life the commute from Rosyth was ideal but too short lived. What plans do the SNP have for direct routes from Scotland to the other parts of Europe.? This was my point it was easier to travel to Europe directly from Scotland in the pre Union period than it is now despite transport improvement.

  7. alfbaird says:

    I worked on research for the Scotland-Continent ferry initiative for at least a decade, before and after devolution, and it was torture trying to get any interest from state officials. Civil servants wanted Scots to use Humber/Dover. Humber services marketed themselves as ‘Gateway to Scotland’. I eventually got Scottish Enterprise to run a ferry operator tender (EU style) from which we selected Superfast. Kenny MacAskill was the only real help at the time as SNP Transport spokesperson. I applied for the EU grants for Rosyth modifications. Sfast ran an excellent service but were driven away after 5 yrs or so by Forth Ports high charges and lack of storage land for freight at Rosyth. Superfast would have preferred their own terminal at Cockenzie, another of my R&D projects, giving a shorter sailing distance to the continent and saving on fuel. Now East Lothian Council are dragging their feet on Cockenzie which is available to develop as a new port, and civil servants still show no interest in creating a Scottish Gateway port there for European trade and to handle the bigger cruise ships that have nowhere else to berth on the Forth. Even with the Brexit shambles telling civil servants such a terminal and ferry connection is badly needed, and with industry interest in it, they intentionally leave Scotland’s economy at the mercy of and dependent on England’s ever more congested and costly transport/logistics setup. Sturgeon’s SNP are hopeless on this just as they are hopeless on domestic ferries, and also in so many other aspects of policy. I’ve long since come to the conclusion that senior civil servants sent up to Scotland by Whitehall to develop and implement Holyrood policy mean to fail Scotland, and I was/am an advisor to Ministers….. Which brings us back to Albert Memmi’s notion that a colonial people always end up being lumbered with a mediocre meritocracy mainly sent from the ‘mother country’ and this coupled with Scotland’s ongoing economic exploitation results in an under-developed nation and people.

  8. John Burleigh says:

    Alf, You have forgot to mention John Burleigh’s ‘Vision’ for a Continental Cruise Car Ferry Service from Gourock to Santander via Dun Laoghaire. This would bring economic prosperity to Inverclyde and Scotland. Gourock was strategic in WWII and is strategic and essential now.

  9. alfbaird says:

    Thanks John. Yes, you are right, to ensure our supply chains, trade and tourism, Scotland should develop two MoS (Motorways of the Sea), one Forth-Continent and one Clyde-Continent.

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