I am of the generation that remembers the name Brian Trubshaw (Concorde’s British test pilot) and to whom it is obvious that Monty Python’s Flying Sheep sketch refers to Concorde, and that the Ministry of Silly Walks is the Ministry of Technology which supported it. After all the punch-line is ‘the Anglo-French Silly Walk, la Marche Futile!’. But Concorde itself is hardly forgotten by younger people. Concorde stands for a lot of things – the brilliance of British engineering, British delusions of grandeur, the uncommercial focus of British technology policy of the past. Interestingly it rarely stands for Anglo-French cooperation.
The case of Concorde raises difficult questions which opponents and proponents of industrial and research strategy have had difficulty facing. For that reason Concorde is a useful case to consider in order to get a better historical understanding of the realities of British industrial and innovation policy since 1945.
In the R&D policy literature Concorde is part of big failure story. In the literature dominant from the 1960s into the 1990s what needed to be explained was high R&D and low British growth in the years between 1945 and the 1960s and 1970s. The ‘British paradox’ Christopher Freeman called it. His explanation, and that of many others, was that too much was spent on defence and on prestige projects, of which Concorde was a prime example, and not enough on bread and butter, commercially realisable innovation. Germany and Japan were not so foolish and succeeded was the moral of this British misallocation model. It was the dominant thesis drummed into every expert on British science policy into the 1990s.
There are two things wrong with the model. First, the assumption that more national R&D should lead to more national growth is not correct. In fact, for interesting, important and obvious reasons, national R&D was and is roughly inversely correlated with national rates of growth. Second, non-prestige, and non-defence R&D spending in the UK in the 1950s and 1960s was high, in fact higher than in Germany or Japan (let alone France or Italy).
By the 1980s there was a very strong sense in the science policy community that the UK really needed to get its act together in innovation and make a really serious national effort to innovate in things which we knew would be important for the future. A central part of the argument was that this had never happened before, partly because of the supposed emphasis on prestige and defence. The argument was now extended to suggesting that there had never been an active industrial or technology policy. Instead the suggestion was that research policy was left to scientists and their airy fairy ideas which went nowhere. This was in effect another misallocation thesis –money had been handed over to the commercially witless research scientists who frittered it away on winning Nobel Prizes. To realise our potential we had to get real.
But this view was profoundly wrong too. Successive British governments really believed in the need to take a serious strategic view of British technological strength and to exploit it with commitment in order to secure the economic future of the nation. From 1945 onwards there was a very serious attempt to transform the nation through innovation and industrial strategy. We should not believe that ‘Keynesianism’ and the creation of the welfare state was as far as the state intervened.
The history of policy for the aircraft industry exemplifies this. As far as the British state was concerned aviation was an industry of the future in which it was vital to be strong in. Money and energy was poured in. The huge Brabazon – with 8 engines, the gigantic Princess flying boat – with 10 engines, the Britannia, the VC10 and the Concorde were most serious attempts to build big, leapfrogging aeroplanes. No fewer than three were built by Bristol Aeroplane, in the same Brabazon Hangar, the largest open span building in Europe. Four had Bristol engines.
And who was to say this was a bad idea? The UK was without question a pioneer in the jet engine – and was certainly ahead of the rest of the world in 1945, and beyond. This was not a lead to be squandered, especially not when the British aircraft industry was by far the largest and most technically capable in Europe.
To return to Concorde. In the light of this history Concorde can’t I think be seen merely as a prestige project. It was meant to be a ticket to the technological future, one which had to be bought for the nation to succeed.
Aviation was not the only field in which the UK felt it was exploiting a national lead. This was also true of atomic power. In the 1950s the UK had in absolute and relative terms the largest civil nuclear power programme in the world, based on the Magnox reactors. A second generation of reactors would follow from the 1960s when the UK boasted, correctly, that it had generated more nuclear electricity than any other country. Again, the programme cannot be put down merely to prestige. Indeed both the aviation and nuclear programmes need to be understood in the frame of a wider vigorous techno-nationalist strategy which made the UK more industrial than it had ever been in its history, and transformed the infrastructure of the nation.
Techno-nationalism was an active, expensive policy pursued by experts, technocrats perhaps, with the future in their bones. They believed that aviation and nuclear power were the future, and the future for Britain. Like the technocrats of the present, who claim we must invest in biotech or batteries or AI, they insisted they knew the future.
Of course, not even technocrats know the future, even those celebrated for being ahead of their time. What if supporting batteries or AI is just as much an unrealistic project as Concorde? Or perhaps Concorde was in fact a plausible bet on the future? What we can’t assume is that back then weird and wonderful notions of prestige ruled, but today we are hardnosed experts.
If anything went wrong in the past it was not, I suggest, a lack of ability to see the future, or lack of commitment, or even lack of consideration of economic benefits (for the economic benefits of Concorde were widely touted). What was missing was enough of a consideration of alternatives, enough understanding of what was happening elsewhere in the world, and a lack of serious understanding of the uncertainties inherent in innovation. And these problems are just as bad today I think as in the 1960s. In fact they are worse, because the rest of the technological world is so much larger and important relative to the UK today compared to the 1960s. We are still pretending to pursue a delusional top dog innovation policy.
The history I give of British aviation above is not the conventional one. Most of the literature on the topic tells a story of lack of commitment – a key book was called Project Cancelled. The basic idea is that promising aeroplane after promising aeroplane was cancelled – the Martin Baker swept wing fighter; the V1000; the TSR2. Yet the commitment is striking – the cancellations really came from overcommitment not under commitment.
What we have difficulty coping with is the fact that commitment can lead to failure; we are to quick to see failure as evidence for lack of commitment. We are also prone to forget success. The aero-engine maker Rolls-Royce (which took over Bristol engines in the 1960s) is one of the very, very few cases of a world leading large still significantly British enterprise. It would not exist but for the strong support of the British state over decades, European military projects, and indirectly because of the existence and success of Airbus.
The history I tell above makes no sense from another angle. If we think of political history of technology, and industrial strategy, we think of the White Heat, of Wilson’s Labour exceptional but brief commitment to modernisation through technology, only to fail. But there is a much richer story of the White Heat which is fully consistent with the story above. The White Heat programme of 1963/64 was based on the knowledge that the state had indeed invested huge quantities and made huge efforts in technology and industry. It was a programme of shifting away from projects which turned out dubious to more commercially viable ones. It was a critique of overcommitment to defence and to prestige projects. In other words, the White Heat policy was already, as a matter in theory, one of no-more Concordes. The era of the White Heat was an era of increasingly clear scepticism about state high technology. I think we need to learn from that scepticism, as much as from the policies which were actually pursued by the post-war United Kingdom.