In the twentieth century, just as the Royal Navy came no longer to rule the waves, the British merchant fleet began to fall sharply as a percentage of the world total. The port of Singapore would see far fewer British-flagged ships. Some of the commercial decline lay beyond British control. But British shipyards were slow to innovate, short on investment, and did not try to improve the skills and efficiency of their workers or their management. Labor relations were poor and class prejudices aggravated them.I was surprised to read that "the last ship to unload cargo in London did so in late October 1981" (p. 260).
When Lee Kuan Yew visited a British shipyard and compared it with one he had seen in Japan, he commented that Japanese executives had firsthand familiarity with the factory floor whereas British executives seemed to confine themselves to their carpeted offices. In contrast, Japanese management and workers dressed in the same hardhat and rubber boots and customarily ate the same plain food together in the same canteen. They were all “gray collar workers,” as Lee puts it. But in Britain, class lines were clear. At noon Lee’s British host, elegant in his bespoke suit, whisked him off in a gleaming Rolls Royce to lunch at a hotel far removed in every way from the yard.
British yards were known for late deliveries, and management paid insufficient attention to the market. Attitudes certainly tell us something. Sir John Mallabar, chairman of Harland & Wolff, the great Belfast shipbuilder, explained that he did not need market research. “If you get an explosion in population, you must get an explosion in world trade. This is all I need to know.”
The triumphs of the past had nurtured a sense of superiority that in a new climate caused British maritime interests to suffer. As one observer put it, “Complacency is an all-pervading legacy of Victorian Britain and affected most industries which reached positions of strength and importance in that period.” With the amalgamation of shipping lines and disappearance of the old family firms, the business became more abstract. The ship owners shifted their eyes from the ship to the office, from the deck to the ledger. And as British maritime industry declined, those leading it, instead of looking for ways to improve, tended to blame others.
30 October 2017
Decline of British Shipping
From Singapore: Unlikely Power, by John Curtis Perry (Oxford U. Press, 2017), Kindle Loc. 4318-37: