Technology

Part of Orders of the Day — Queen's Speech – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 5th November 1964.

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Photo of Mr Quintin Hogg Mr Quintin Hogg , St Marylebone 12:00 am, 5th November 1964

I should not have picked the right hon. Gentleman as Prime Minister either. I should have chosen somebody else.

One is left to speculate as to what kind of offence, political or personal, the hon. Member for Edmonton caused the right hon. Gentleman in order to be passed over. One is left to brood darkly on the fact that Parliamentary untouchability—not to use the harsher word used against one of my hon. Friends—is not limited to the Conservative Party. Meantime, I can only express my regret that I am not facing the Minister of Technology. But this time it is not our fault. There is no miasma of leprosy emerging from these benches which is responsible for his absence. It is the Prime Minister himself who, by his own choice, has made his landlord the Minister of Technology.

I have indulged in what I think was a legitimate exchange with the right hon. Gentleman, but I think it right, and I believe the right hon. Gentleman thinks it right, that we should consider these matters in Parliament of Government machinery and Government structure. We discuss them too little. I think that they matter a great deal more than we are apt to assume. If I differ from the right hon. Gentleman, it is not because I do not think they are important, but because he has gone the wrong way about dealing with a genuine problem.

I want to move on to questions of policy. First among these is the threat to jettison the Concord project and E.L.D.O. and E.S.R.O. These are described, at least by the Government White Paper by implication, as prestige projects. The Royal Society and the Advisory Council on Scientific Policy advised us consistently—and I believe that it was right advice which I sought to take—that the only things which bring a nation prestige in the long run are those which are scientifically and technologically correct. The only projects which I recognise as prestige projects are those which can be justified on technological or scientific grounds. If by "prestige projects" the Government mean projects based on any other basis of valuation than one which is sound technologically, educationally, economically, then I deny that these were prestige projects.

I was somewhat appalled at the sudden change which I seemed to detect in Government policy on this subject. During the election I had occasion to read some Labour election literature. The print which I have in my hand was circulated in Central Nottingham and printed in Bristol. It is entitled "Labour and the Aircraft Industry". It has on the back of it the thumbs-up sign and Let's go. Labour will get things done". The workers on the Concord project have no quarrel to make with the last sentence: they have been done.

I want to read one or two sentences from this pamphlet which was circulated to aircraft workers by the Labour Party candidates concerned in the constituencies where they were likely to be: What will a Labour Government do? In the first place, the aircraft industry above all needs long term planning—with the Concord we are already looking ahead to 1970, and for projects of this kind"— that is, the Concord project— working with Europe widens the initial market and spreads the cost. I agree with every word of that. I think that it was good stuff. But I wonder what the voters who may have voted Labour on the faith of this pamphlet will think of the voyage of the Minister of Aviation, whom we are glad to see back again to answer this debate, about the project which he tried to unveil to the French Government in the light of the pledges given here. They may even think that they were bonkers to do so. This is not a matter which they will take quite as lightly as hon. Members opposite.

Let me try to indicate what the justification for projects of this kind can be. It is true—and this is the point at which I meant that the rôle of the State in modern technological society is, perhaps, a little different from what the doctrinaires of either side would have led us to believe—that each one of these projects when entered into has many rivals, of which we can choose only one or two. I shall not argue—others will be more competent than myself—which of a series of alternative projects of this kind should have been selected, whether mach 2 or mach 3, aluminium, titanium or stainless steel, whether one should have gone in for variable geometry or for supersonic flight by itself, vertical take-off and the rest. They are all vulnerable to the same kind of criticism. In the first place, they are extremely uncertain; secondly, return is extremely long-delayed and, thirdly, commercial profit is by no means certain. These are facts which have to be accepted by both sides of the House and they are one of the things which we have to look at.

There are very few technologically advanced countries. America, I think, is in front. I believe, although I do not want to enter into disputes about the Iron Curtain and what lies behind it, that we are second or very nearly second. France, Japan and other countries are catching up.

So far, those who have got way out in advance—and the Americans are easily the most advanced—have done so largely because of Government money spent on projects of this kind, sometimes 10 years in advance and usually, it must be said, and said, I think, with regret, defence money spent on the possibility of improving military projects. I do not approve of that but it is a fact. Jet travel, electronics, nuclear generation of electricity and aeroplanes of all kinds in two world wars all owe the technological break-through to investment of this kind.

The Concord and the space projects E.S.R.O. and E.L.D.O. also have their origins very largely in something similar, but they represented, and they represent now, an honest attempt to move away from the defence budget, to create technological fall-out and technological advance by means of a civilian project. I should have thought that for that reason they would have appealed to hon. Members opposite. They certainly appealed to us.

I say this to the right hon. Gentleman in all sincerity. The Americans are very good allies and, being half American, I trust and love them as no other foreign nation in the world. Make no mistake about it, however. When it comes to technological advance, they are not on the side of European technology. We need to recognise this fact. They will drive us out of the aircraft market if they can. They will drive us out of the space satellite market if they can and out of the generation of electricity by nuclear power if they can. They will do so, no doubt, by legitimate means, but if we care, as I care and as, I believe, hon. Members opposite care no less, for the real technological advance of this country, we are not going to let them do it.

Supersonic jet travel will come. The communications satellite will come and will multiply all over the face of the world the technological development and the commercial advance of mankind. Each time we talk of developing a new underdeveloped country, we are talking, if we are sincere—and I know that we are—about the industrialisation of that country. We are creating for ourselves potential commercial rivals in the field of conventional technology. The only way in which we can carry this thing through with honour, dignity and prosperity to our own people is in backing future enterprises of this kind, which cost hundreds of millions of £s, as they undoubtedly will, and some of which undoubtedly will fail. None the less, it is the greatest mistake to believe that the technological fall-out which ultimately we gain from such endeavours will not more than compensate us for those efforts.

If we are to abandon any one of these projects, the only thing with which it is legitimate to replace them is not something for the moment, not something in the short-term, not a device to get rid of some balance of payments crisis, but another project considered better in exactly the same class. I cannot help thinking that this decision was taken without adequate consultation. I do not like the way in which it was announced after literature of the kind to which I have referred was circulated during the election. I do not like the element of bad faith about it with regard to our French partner.

If we are to carry out projects of this kind, whether the Concord project or the E.S.R.O. or E.L.D.O. project, upon which much of the future of the aircraft and electronics industry will depend, it is no good believing that we can rely solely upon a market for the project when it is produced limited simply to this country. It is no good looking across the Atlantic in the hope that the United States may back us up, whether they will or not, 10 years from now. We have got to build upon the prospect of an assured market and the only place where we can look is the European Continent, where there are nations of equivalent or almost equivalent technological advance needing the same things in the same position vis-à-vis the United States and able to give us a joint market.

If we abandon this, if we abandon and tear up a contract which has been solemnly entered into, who will ever trust us again? Is it the French, the Germans or the Americans? Is it management or is it the trade unions who have been served up with stuff like this election literature? Who will trust us again? I beg the right hon. Gentleman to go back on his decision and think whether he has acted wisely.

I end with this simple reflection. There is a good deal more that I should like to say, but I do not wish to detain the House. I began by emphasising the economic importance of science and technology. It is not only a matter of economic importance. We are the heirs and guardians of a civilisation in which there are many different strands with their roots deeply sunk into the past. But rightly or wrongly, for good or for ill, science with technology is the one characteristic contribution to that civilisation which this generation has been able to make. It is not only an economic contribution. It is a contribution to the civilisation of our time. It is the spiritual insights, the academic disciplines, the honour and respect for truth, the ability dispassionately to weigh evidence, the refusal to sit down under practical failure which are part of our cultural as well as our economic heritage. By fragmenting it, the right hon. Gentleman has done no good service to the technology and science of this country.

It is not too late for the right hon. Gentleman to turn back. He knows that I am a critic of his, and I have made no bones about it, but I beg him to turn back from the course which he has set himself. Let him realise, first, that much more depends upon personal relations in this matter than public relations. Let him do more consulting and please, less insulting. [Interruption.] I have never called anybody a leper yet. Let the right hon. Gentleman, above all things, realise that this country does not want a presidential system of Government. He has, I believe, brought chaos into the organisation of science and technology by ill-considered action, and he has at any rate jeopardised, and may have ruined, a large section of the aircraft and electronics industry.