SHIPBUILDING AND THE COMPETITIVE SPIRIT.
IIHE statement by Sir Eric Geddes in the House of Com- mons on Wednesday may be summarized as very grave but as containing the elements of hopefulness. To begin with, it is a distinct point to the good that the First Lord has taken the country into the confidence of the Admiralty. We cannot help thinking that if this had been done a year ago the results in the shipbuilding yards might have been different. On the other hand, it is absurd to say, as some critics are saying, that publicity would have solved all our difficulties. There were, of course, many difficulties that publicity would not have touched. There were the disputes between masters and men upon which Sir Edward Carson laid so much stress ; there was the indecision as to whether the Government should devote themselves chiefly to building ships of war or to building merchant vessels ; there was the problem of the allocation of man-power. These were all puzzles to which the Government alone had to find the solution, and publicity would not have helped them very much. But in the effect that publicity is likely to have on the determination and enthusiasm of the shipbuilders and their men, Sir Eric Geddes's disclosures are wholly to the good. It is the greatest possible mistake to suppose that the spirit of Englishmen is weighed upon by the knowledge that they are fighting an uphill game. That is the game they fight best.
Although Sir Eric Geddes told us a good deal, he by no means told us everything, and it is to be hoped that the figures yet to be given to the country will add all the infor- mation that can be published with profit to ourselves and without advantage to the enemy. We all understand now that the total world tonnage of thirty-three million tons at the beginning of the war has been reduced by two and a half million tons, or eight per cent. It must be borne in mind that this is a net reduction. It is the absolute loss when allowance has been made for the new construction of merchant vessels during the war. Of this loss the greater part has been suffered by British shipping, the net reduction of which has been twenty per cent. This is superficially a more encouraging figure than many people have been led to expect, just as it is undoubtedly encouraging to know that the Germans have stink three million and a half tons less than they have claimed. But unfortunately Sir Eric Geddes's figures gave no clue to the amount of shipping that still remains available for commercial purposes. He did not tell us what proportion of our merchant shipping has been withdrawn from the ordinary uses of trade in order to carry out purely naval and military services. The amount must be very great ; but unless we know the figures, it is impossible to say how large our food-carrying fleet is at the present moment.
Our anti-' U '-boat campaign must be conducted by several converging methods. When the extreme danger of the U '-boat challenge was first recognized, the tendency was rather to concentrate upon building new fighting craft to sink the submarines. It is now seen that though that is a method which cannot possibly be neglected, it is equally important (and perhaps more important at the moment) to replace by new vessels the merchantmen that are being sunk. Our building still falls dangerously short of adjusting the balance between losses and construction. And here we come to by far the most promising part of Sir Eric Geddes's statement, which was to the effect that the figures of our output in shipbuilding and of our losses in tonnage would be regularly published. This means that the shipbuilding industry is to be encouraged by seeing the exact results of its efforts. The shipyards are no longer, as it were, to work in the dark without understanding in the least what is the relation of their efforts to the progress of the war and the feeding of the nation. This is an extremely wise decision, and we may expect very good results from it. The com- petitive spirit which is strong in Englishmen will be provoked all along the line. One of the most striking facts of the war has been the persistent, if not always scientific, use of publicity. Now that publicity is to be employed in speeding up the work of shipbuilding, we must hope that it will be used for all it is worth. And here a criticism of Sir Eric Geddes's plan seems to be justified. He said that the returns of output and losses would be published every three months. Surely that is a very long interval. Let us imagine that the ship- building industry is in the position of rival cricket elevens, while the nation represents the spectators ringed round the cricket-field. Everybody knows what happens in a cricket match. When the match is a near thing, delirious shouts of joy go up from the partisans of the batting side when each run is registered on the scoring-board. When the runs of that side equal those of its opponent there is an ovation. Every point in the game is watched with critical excitement, and the changing figures on the scoring-board are the signals for each renewed outburst. Now suppose that the scorers in the boxes were instructed not to put up every run, or even every ten runs, but to put up the score at the luncheon interval, and again at the end of the day. What a damper that would be ! Yet it seems to us that Sir Eric Geddes's proposal is something very like this. Of course he is wise in taking care that the figures shall not be sufficiently up to date to give the Germans the information they need.
But it would, nevertheless, be easy to publish the figures at extremely short intervals, say every week, or every month, even though it would be well understood that the . latest figures were never up to date. The great thing, having once set the competitive spirit going, is to keep it going strong. The Clyde, the Tyne, the Severn, Belfast, and so on should be thrown into such a state of emulation as the counties used to be about their cricket matches before the war.
Finally, the appointment of Lord Pirrie as Controller- General of Mercantile Ship Construction seems to us to be an excellent move. Responsibility is given to a man who is a most eminent and successful shipbuilder, aid who no doubt has all the dislike professed by his class for excessive Government interference. It is good, too, that Lord Pirrie will be directly responsible to the First Lord, though he will have a right of appeal to the Prime Minister. Hero we get two desirable conditions. The first is that merchant shipbuilding should not be regarded as wholly independent of naval shipbuilding, for as a matter of fact the two kinds of ship are built in the same yards, and perfect co-operation is essential. The second condition is that the Prime Minister accepts formal and ultimate responsibility, and pledges himself to it on behalf of the Cabinet.