Barrow-in-Furness: The Small Town at the Centre of Britain’s Nuclear Arsenal

by Matt Kennard

10 December 2017

Defence Images/Flickr

Norman Hill has been agitating against nuclear weapons for nearly half a century but it hasn’t dampened his enthusiasm one bit.

As we walk along the empty road that runs alongside BAE Systems’ imposing shipyard at the edge of Barrow-in-Furness, the veteran anti-nuclear activist speaks at a hundred miles an hour, wanting to get all the arguments against the industry that sustains his town out as fast as possible.

Hill was born in Barrow in 1941 and has lived most of his life in the town. “I came from a solid working class family. My dad was an engineer in the shipyard,” he says.

The Barrow shipyard occupies a central place in the production of what is called Britain’s ‘nuclear deterrent’, producing the submarines which carry the missiles and nuclear warheads. The previous class of nuclear submarines were produced here and the new submarines which will carry Trident will be built here.

Norman Hill, 45 year veteran of the anti-nuclear weapons movement in Barrow-in-Furness.

Hill first became involved in the anti-nuclear movement in Barrow in the mid 1970s. There was talk of cruise missiles being deployed in the UK in response to a Soviet buildup the US claimed was a threat to Europe. He thought the idea was madness. Hill’s father worked in the shipyard, but was supportive of his son’s activism. “At that time there were a lot of people in the shipyard who agreed with that position,” he says. Much has changed since then.

“The nest of the dragon is here, pure evil,” he says, pointing towards the shipyard. “The fact that people are dependent on living for manufacturing this obscenity. The submarines themselves are not an obscenity, it’s what they going to carry. That’s the obscenity.”

The current Trident renewal proposal aims to replace four nuclear submarines (called Vanguard class) with four new submarines (called Dreadnought class). They will have a 30 year life cycle. It’s over £8bn pounds per submarine. The current government policy is to have an ‘active stockpile’ of 160 nuclear weapons, 40 nuclear warheads on each submarine, with up to eight missiles, which are longer than Nelson’s Column. All these are hydrogen bombs, weapons that have never been dropped outside of tests and have 100 kilotonnes of explosive power, about seven times the size of the bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima. “We could have 160 of those,” one scientist tells me. “You could literally destroy the whole world with that, basically.”

View from the bridge. The BAE Systems Trident submarine shipyard. A nuclear submarine is viewable half submerged in the water.

Crossing the bridge over the Devonshire Dock where the shipyard sits, I see one of the nuclear submarines poking out from under the water. It is hard to fathom that little Barrow, population 69,087, is the central node in the production of a nuclear arsenal capable of wiping out civilisation. “No one really thinks about it like this,” Hill tells me as we glance over.

Barrow, the biggest town in Cumbria, sits on the outer edge of the Furness peninsula which juts into to the Irish Sea. Half an hour drive north takes you into the tourist hotspot of the Lake District, but Barrow is a world away from there. The town has been dominated by the shipyard since its inception in the 1870s. 70 miles up the coast is Sellafield, where nuclear waste disposal is a hot button issue. There had been plans for a massive subterranean store, but it was vetoed by Cumbria county council.

The BAE shipyard dominates the town of Barrow-in-Furness.

The nuclear warheads themselves are produced and maintained at the Atomic Weapons Establishment in Aldermaston, a town of just over a thousand people near Reading. The site was the end point for anti-nuclear weapons demonstrators who did an annual walk from London to Aldermaston in the 1950s and 1960s. The government owns the site, but it is operated by private sector contractors. The management of the company is held by a consortium of three companies (two of them American) – Lockheed Martin, Babcock International and Jacobs Engineering. The missiles are made in the US and then rented to the UK. Britain does not own the missiles on which its nuclear warheads sit. Nonetheless, it is considered an ‘independent nuclear deterrent’, though it is arguable that only one of the words in the phrase is true.

The Corbyn conundrum.

With the current standoff between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un, Hill’s activism has taken on a new urgency. And he has also found an unlikely ally in the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, a veteran anti-nuclear campaigner and vice-president of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND). “There is support for Corbyn in this town,” says Hill. “But it’s not necessarily over the Trident issue.”

The local Labour MP, John Woodcock, and the main unions representing workers in the shipyard, Unite and GMB, are solidly behind Trident renewal and maintaining Britain’s nuclear weapons arsenal. But it wasn’t always this way. From 1966 until 1983 Albert Booth was the Labour MP. Totally opposed to nuclear weapons, Booth was a leading figure in the demonstrations against the Polaris submarines being built in Barrow.

But when Margaret Thatcher was elected for a second term the slogan for Barrow was ‘Trident means jobs’. Cecil Frank, Barrow’s Conservative MP from 1983 to 1992, coined the catchphrase ‘If Labour is elected, what will the lads do on Monday?’. The inference was that because Labour had a position of nuclear disarmament the jobs would disappear.

Meanwhile promises were made to the people of Barrow on the number of jobs created and the economic spillover from the Trident programme. ‘Boomtown Barrow’ was the vision.

“The people of this town fell for this, that it meant jobs,” says Hill. At that time, Vickers-Armstrong employed 14,000 workers. That figure is now closer to 5,000. Despite this, the government still points to jobs as the major rationale for its outsized support for the arms industry.

Woodcock, Barrow MP since 2010, says it’s not just about the economics. “There is a very important cultural identity for Barrow as a shipbuilding town,” he says. But, he says, Barrow is the jewel in the wider crown of advanced manufacturing jobs. He doesn’t believe the jobs could be transferred to other industries and doesn’t see anything wrong with the UK having a nuclear deterrent. “I happen to firmly believe that the world should have submarines, and I believe that the UK should maintain a nuclear deterrent while other countries have the the ability to threaten us.” He tells me calls for alternative employment are “totally fanciful”.

BAE Systems has penetrated every part of Barrow-in-Furness. Here its logo has been sprayed on the pavement in central Barrow.

The Barrow shipyard became part of BAE when Marconi Electronic Systems and British Aerospace merged in 1999. The company dominates the town physically: the shipyard is the first thing you see as you come into the town, eclipsing the rows of one up, one down terraces that line the roads. The company’s logo is all over the town. On one of the main streets in the centre I come across a slab of pavement with BAE’s logo spray painted on Banksy-style. Up the pedestrianised Dalton Street, which runs to the shipyard from the centre of town, sits a brass monument (paid for by BAE Systems) of workers in heroic poses. ‘LABOUR. WIDE AS THE EARTH’ says one engraving. ‘COURAGE. THE READINESS IS ALL’ reads another.

This monument to the heroic workers of the shipyard in Barrow was paid for by BAE Systems.

BAE has essential leverage over every aspect of Barrow because of the jobs the shipyard provides. If anyone proposes something the company doesn’t like, it can say, well, we’ll shut down the shipyard. But they do not like visitors. After nearly a year of back and forth, BAE Systems refused me a tour of the shipyard or an interview. Meanwhile Unite and GMB unions, both representing workers in the shipyard, said they could not provide any workers or shop stewards to be interviewed. The secrecy of the arms industry is one its most striking features: the companies and these workers are working on government contracts, paid for by the public.

Unite and GMB were big supporters of Corbyn’s leadership bid while being in favour of Trident renewal to save jobs. Corbyn, for his part, said in the event of non-renewal that investment would save all the jobs and put people to work in other high-skilled socially-useful industries such as renewable power. Research shows that when evaluated on a cost-per-job basis, jobs in the arms industry are more costly than nearly every other sector. That is especially true now as the jobs producing submarines have become more capital-intensive and more goes on materials and complex equipment, so there is less that gets to workers.


20 miles across the waters of Morecambe Bay, in a small community on the outskirts of Lancaster, there is an example of a project that is the opposite of everything that Barrow is: sustainable, modern, and built on the ideals of environmental protection and peace. Lancaster Co-Housing is a eco housing development set up by local people with the aim of building cutting edge eco-houses and running them all off of local renewable energy. The energy they use is generated by a community-run hydropower plant on the river, which generates enough electricity for 250 homes.

Stuart Parkinson, executive director of Scientists for Global Responsibility, and one of the founders of an eco-community outside Lancaster.

At the community, I meet Stuart Parkinson, executive director of Scientists for Global Responsibility (SGR), an organisation of scientists and engineers concerned about the misuse of science and technology in the UK. The group recently celebrated its 25th anniversary.

SGR has long been involved in campaigns against nuclear weapons, particularly studies of the immediate effects of the explosions and the resulting nuclear winter and climate issues. “We estimate that just one Trident submarine load of nuclear weapons could cause enough smoke to create such a cooling of the climate that it would lead to mass crop failures and global famine affecting somewhere between one and two billion people, so possibly a third of the population of the planet. That’s just one submarine load of Trident nuclear warheads.”

SGR has also been at the forefront of looking at conversion issues for defence jobs. On jobs in Barrow, “they’ve already gone through a transition,” says Parkinson. “Part of the problem there is that has left a lot of people out of work, because regeneration funding hasn’t gone in and it’s necessary. But there are alternative jobs being created there. There’s a marina being started. One of the great travesties of Barrow is that there are offshore wind farms being built just off Walney Island, just off the coast there, and very few of the jobs are going to Barrow. So, building the turbines isn’t even done in Britain, although it’s starting to. But building the turbine nacelles, the turbine blades, and all of that could be done in Britain, as industry starting in Britain, but not in Barrow, to do that. But most of the historical stuff is being done overseas. Some of the installation jobs have gone to Barrow, but not many. And it’s such a missed opportunity.”

One of the inspirations for this type of thinking is the 1976 Alternative Corporate Plan for Lucas Aerospace (AKA Lucas Plan). Produced in response to announced job cuts, the Lucas Aerospace Combine Shop Stewards Committee produced the plan to advocate for the manufacture of socially-useful products. In the 1980s there was a plan drawn up by researchers working with trade unions on a Lucas Plan for Barrow which envisioned Barrow converting to produce offshore wind turbines and wave and tidal energy generators. It was dismissed by the company management. But in hindsight it would have been a good move – in terms of global growth industries, renewable energy technology is one of the fastest expanding. On the other hand, nuclear submarines are up and down.

A factory making wind turbines in Hull now employs 900 people. Meanwhile the BAE Systems factory in nearby Brough has recently been laying off workers. In Barrow, no such investment has been made in alternative industries.

Parkinson says research on ‘skills matching’ has shown the many similarities between shipbuilding and submarine skills and those needed in the offshore energy industry. “There’s a lot of fluid dynamics involved. If you’re looking at wave energy and tidal energy, you’re looking at motion of water, and that’s what you look at when you’re designing submarines. And then you’ve got propeller blades for submarines, and you’ve got turbine blades for wind turbines. There are skills that aren’t really miles away from each other.”

Why are the unions so resistant? I ask Stuart Gilhesey, native of Newcastle who is GMB regional organisation officer for BAE Systems, which covers the shipyard at Barrow. “Well historically if you look at what’s happened to the Tyne, that’s my example because that’s where I come from, renowned for shipbuilding, many companies based in arms industry, that’s not been replaced. You can have these great lofty ideals – who doesn’t want a nuclear free world? It would be great, absolutely brilliant – but in reality these ideals don’t always come into reality, you can have these ideals that a lot of labour – trade unions – have, but will what should happen actually happen?”

The community.

In the Furness Railway, a buzzing Wetherspoons pub a stone’s throw from the Labour party’s headquarters in the town, locals eat and drink from early in the morning to late in the night. It’s a regular hangout for young lads who work at the shipyard. I sit down with two who are getting in their evening beers. Jack Burns is a 31 year old steelworker at the shipyard, a place it was always his dream to work. “I always wanted to work in there but I’ve only been working there for the last year. I’ve had a career in office work and computer work but I like to work with my hands plus my grandparents always worked in the yard. In fact, my great grandad died on one of the boats when he worked in there, before I was born.” Everyone in Barrow has a multi-generational connection of some sort to the shipyard.

Jack Burns, 31, is a steelworker who works for BAE Systems on the nuclear submarines at the shipyard.

Has he been worried about Corbyn’s position on Trident renewal? “I don’t care too much about it to be honest with you. It’s just another contract. We just go in. We just do our job. You know? I mean, not many people ask about it and it doesn’t really come up.”

Barrow, a working class town built on manufacturing, is a natural Labour heartland. “But the Labour manifesto actually supported the renewal with Trident. It’s just Corbyn himself that didn’t support it. So, I don’t know. There is worry. I’m certainly worried because I’m only a year deep in my work. I’d like to think that I’ve got a career for life.”

His friend, Josh Crawford, 18, and also a steelworker at the shipyard, chimes in, “Now they’ve passed the Dreadnought and I don’t think they’d get rid of it. But I think it could halt future buildings.”

Corbyn has promised to replace any jobs lost with high skilled employment in other industries. Doesn’t that assuage their fears? “Actually, no,” says Jack. “If we get rid of the Trident renewal, then they’re not gonna give us any jobs. I think Barrow is only as well-known as it is because of the shipyard. I think if you got rid of the shipyard, in Barrow a lot of people would move out. Barrow would become a deserted town. The only reason Barrow is a thriving town is because of the shipyard.”

Josh Crawford, 18, is a steelworker who works for BAE Systems on the nuclear submarines at the shipyard.

The fear that promises of alternative employment will not be carried through is understandable. The Thatcher government made similar promises as it destroyed the mining industry, but never replaced the jobs, leaving subsequent generations in the grips of deprivation and destitution. But to many in the anti-nuclear community, Corbyn is so valuable on this issue because he’s someone who believes seriously in both nuclear disarmament and in protecting workers.

Jack continues: “I believe him when he says that he doesn’t support Trident, which is actually the missile system. It’s not the submarine. I remember hearing him say that. Just because he doesn’t support Trident doesn’t mean that the submarines can’t still be built. They still have other functions so there is that. I don’t fully understand if he was saying that just to keep some people happy. He doesn’t sort of strike me as the sort of person to keep people happy.”

I ask them if they would consider themselves Corbyn supporters. “I don’t really like the guy personally, but then I don’t necessarily like Theresa May either,” says Jack. “I’m leaning towards Theresa May, but I think that’s because of the fact that I want to keep my job.” Josh adds: “If I had to vote, I’d definitely vote for Theresa May. She wants to renew Trident.”

“So you’d vote on a single issue on this one?” I ask.

“When our job’s put in jeopardy, yes, because this is probably the best paying job I’ll have ever have,” says Jack. “And I’ve got a five year old son to support, so if I ended up losing my job simply because Jeremy Corbyn didn’t like it, then that’s probably enough for me to not like him.”

This is the sentiment Hill is up against, and it’s pervasive and understandable.

As we step away from the shipyard back into town I ask Hill whether campaigning for nearly half a century in the heart of the British nuclear arms industry has worn him down. “Look,” he says. “In the wee, small hours of the morning, when all that I’ve tried and all that I’ve done and all that I’ve dreamt of, the tactics that I’ve adopted and all the rest of it has come to naught, then I sometimes get a little bit dejected. Not depressed, dejected.” He stops and looks and me smiling. “Then I get angry, and that fires me up again.”

Matt Kennard is a researcher for Action on Armed Violence.

Travel support for this article was provided by Action on Armed Violence and the Pulitzer Centre for Crisis Reporting. All in-text photos credit: Matt Kennard.

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