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 Angus Maude Mr Angus Maude , Stratford-on-Avon 12:00 am, 5th November 1964

I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman seems to indicate that this is not so. Nearly all the speeches made by my hon. Friends, and several speeches of hon. Members opposite, have been devoted to the British aero-space industry and, in particular, the question of the Concord project and the space projects which have seemed to be threatened by various statements made by the Government—and some curious silences with which those statements have been interspersed. In addition to the speeches of my hon. Friends, there was a very courageous speech by the hon. Member for Coventry, North (Mr. Edelman), and a most interesting speech by the hon. Member for Middlesbrough, West (Dr. Bray) on this question.

Why has this alarm been caused? That is perhaps the most interesting question to be asked. This alarm dates back originally to the publication of the Government White Paper on the economic situation. We should be quite clear what the White Paper said which started all this flap. The quotation is in paragraph 13(6), and begins: The Government will carry out a strict review of all Government expenditure and it goes on to say: Their object will be to relieve the strain on the balance of payments and release resources for more productive purposes by cutting out expenditure on items of low economic priority, such as 'prestige projects'. The Government have already communicated to the French Government their wish to re-examine urgently the Concord project. This was followed up by the most extraordinary succession of Press stories. We very well remember the number of attacks which were made by hon. Members opposite—notably the present Prime Minister—on my right hon. Friend the Member for Preston, North (Mr. J. Amery) on what were alleged to have been Press leaks about various activities of the Ministry of Aviation. I can only say that the apparently inspired or semi-inspired stories in the British Press during the last 10 days have made that leak look like a mere trickle.

I am not suggesting that these stories, any more than stories which occurred during the tenure of office of my right hon. Friend the Member for Preston, North, were leaks from the Ministry of Aviation. I do not believe that they were. I think that some of them were from sources nearer to the Treasury or the Ministry of Economic Affairs than that. Nevertheless, the impression that was given was that either a decision had been taken to cancel the Concord project, or that it was very soon going to be taken, and that such further projects as E.L.D.O. and various other aircraft projects were, if not at least on the list for the axe, being looked at with a very suspicious eye. It is the manner in which this question was first raised that, I think, caused so much concern and which did so much to worry not only our friends in Europe but people working in the British aerospace industry.

The very terms of the White Paper itself are a little peculiar. This was the first mention of a review of the Concord project. It talks of items of low economic priority, such as 'prestige projects'". The mention of the Concord in the very next sentence, taken in conjunction with the implied sneer of the quotation marks around the words "prestige projects", caused considerable offence and obviously begged a great many questions. Lower economic priorities than what? One is surely entitled to ask. This is, after all, a White Paper about the balance of payments. Cancelling the Concord project will make no direct impact on the balance of payments. There is no cross-currency transaction so far as I am aware—if there is, perhaps the Minister will tell us—which will affect the balance of payments. The only possible argument for saying that this would help in a balance of payments crisis would be if it were believed that the total of demand inside this country needed restraining in order to restrain the demand for imports. But, as I understand it, the Chancellor of the Exchequer has precisely said that that is not so, and that the total of demand in this country does not need cutting back.

The next question that arises is this: if this is not the reason, what are these more productive projects which are to be substituted for the Concord and for the other ones which are under threat? Are there any? If so, perhaps we may be told what is likely to be substituted for them. If there are not, what is the real object of the exercise? Is it only to save money to pay for the social programmes of the Government? Are we in fact going to save perhaps £20 million a year simply to enable the Government to abolish prescription charges under the National Health Service? If that is so, first, we ought to be told so, and, secondly, the Government should surely think twice about the long-term implications, from the point of view of a complete industry, on our technological lead in the world of substituting a long-term research project of this kind for an immediate social benefit, not, perhaps, unconnected with electoral considerations.

The next stage in this story was the visit of the Minister of Aviation to France. He is reported to have said that he had gone to find out what the French were thinking. Am I alone in thinking that this was rather an odd way of going about it? Surely we knew what the French were thinking. The French thought that they had a valid and enduring agreement to build the Concord with us. Had there ever been any suggestion that the French wanted to review this project? I do not think so. If there had been, the right hon. Gentleman will tell us. But this certainly caused a great deal of alarm in France. I do not know whether the Minister has read a speech of M. Pompidou, the French Prime Minister. It is reported that he said at a lunch today: We are waiting for details on the British Government's decision which looks as if it will hold up and indeed abandon the Concord project —[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."]—He went on to say and if the right hon. Gentleman is in any doubt about what the French are thinking, here is his answer— We deplore this decision which seems to be a sort of surrender of Europe to the Americans. It would be even more serious if this decision, as hinted, is linked to American pressure and their haste to complete their own plans". Hon. Members opposite shouted loudly when some of my hon. Friends suggested that there might have been an implied deal with the Americans over this cancellation; but the Prime Minister of France is voicing precisely the same suspicions, so it is clear that they are important enough to deserve a frank answer from the Minister of Aviation.

It may be that no decision has yet been taken. We hope that it has not, but we want as soon as possible—and so do the aircraft workers of this country—a clear statement of intention. Not one voice during the whole of this debate has been clearly raised in favour of a Government decision to cancel the Concord. The only one which came near to it was the hon. Member for Middlesborough, West, but he see-sawed about the question so much that I could not actually put him down as a firm supporter of a Government decision to cancel the Concord. From the rest of the debate it is clear that never has the House of Commons spoken so unanimously against a threatened Government policy as on this occasion. In these circumstances, it is really no good for the Government to think that if they make a statement tonight saying that this project is to be cancelled, it is something which can be forgotten and shuffled off, not to be mentioned again. This is something upon which, before the final decisions are implemented, we should certainly require a full-scale major debate.

What in fact is at stake in this issue? It is not just an aircraft. It is not just the future of a whole industry. It is, in fact, the international good name of Britain—and something else as well which may be important to hon. Members opposite: the Government's good faith during the election campaign is also at stake. I am not going again into the details of the pamphlet which was circulated to aircraft workers, or even of the statement made by the hon. Member for Loughborough (Mr. Cronin). These are questions which perhaps the Prime Minister will have to consider, but I should like to quote—[HON. MEMBERS: "Where is he?"]—I did give the hon. Member notice that I was going to mention this.

I should like at this stage to quote a couple of sentences from the television broadcast by the Prime Minister the other day. He said—he was addressing the people of the nation after the announcement of the Government's economic measures— Where we have sometimes fallen down is in our failure to give our scientists their heads and still more our failure to apply the results of scientific discovery in our industrial processes. Too often, you know, British discoveries have been developed overseas leaving us to pay royalties to their developers, or worse still, to import their products, or ask them to set up manufacturing subsidiaries in this country. If this project is cancelled, in 10 years' time we shall be acting as little more than sales agents for Douglas or Lockheed supersonic transport aircraft. The Prime Minister must make up his mind whether that sort of speech that he made so frequently in the past year was the purest humbug, or whether he really did mean it.

I think that the hon. Member for Middlesbrough, West was a little shortsighted on this point. He said that the exports of the aircraft industry had not been sufficient to justify a vast capital investment in it, but he entirely ignored the fact that when the supersonic transport aircraft comes, if it is not ours, not merely do we have no longer the potential exports, but we shall have to spend an enormous amount of money to import American products, which was precisely what the Prime Minister said he was trying to prevent.

The Minister of Aviation, for whom some of my hon. Friends have expressed a certain amount of sympathy—which I share, because he is an old friend of mine and I respect his ability very much—is—and I think he recognises this—not only a customer, and the biggest customer, of the aircraft industry; he is also the guardian and the guide of that industry, as his predecessors have been. He is in fact the political spearhead of technology in this country, and this he must always be. He has a pretty good industry to guide and guard.

There are two things, I suppose, which this country may feel are most important to it—defence and exports. Aviation is a key factor in both of these, and has been for a very long time. The export side of aviation is beginning to, and will increasingly, take the place of the old shipping and shipbuilding industries. It was the pride of this country that as much world trade as possible should be carried in what are known as "British bottoms". This is a matter of pride which we should, I hope, continue to take in our own aviation industry. This is something for which the Ministry is in the last resort responsible.

There have been an enormous number of British break-throughs. We have been first in a very large number of important fields in the development of aviation. Variable pitch propellers, retractable undercarriages, the gas turbine engine, vector thrust for vertical and short takeoff—these are examples of what we have been able to do, so it is clear that we have the brains and the research and development organisation which can do these things.

I do not think anybody denies that we have the brains. What, as I understand it, is the argument is that this is a very expensive way of deploying those brains and that we might in fact find a less expensive way of deploying them to better economic advantage elsewhere. I think there are two answers to this criticism. One of these I hope the right hon. Gentleman will give us. Is it in fact true that these brains can be deployed, either immediately or in the longer term, elsewhere inside British industry? If he thinks they can, I hope that he will tell us so; but I have, and so have most of the experts I have talked to, the gravest doubts about this. It is true that the skilled workers and technicians could probably be absorbed in some jobs or other, but not necessarily in the sort of jobs for which their rather specialised skills have qualified them.

It is true that there has always been a technological fall-out from aviation, direct from the aircraft industry into others, like gas turbine propulsion being used in electricity generation and marine propulsion. But this would not have occurred if there had not been the aero effort first. This is the point which we have to recognise in considering this project.

We remember the criticism about the brain drain in the last year of the last Government. We remember the criticism of the Government for allowing Dr. Barnes Wallis to go to America to develop variable geometry wings for possible use in the TFX. This brain drain would be as nothing to what would happen if the Concord and E.L.D.O. projects were abandoned. This would not be a question of killing the goose. It would be worse than that. It would be telling the goose to go and lay its golden eggs elsewhere because we did not want them. It would be telling the goose to go and lay its golden eggs in America so that, if we could afford them, we could buy them back.

There is no question but that this project will come. If we cannot do it, it will be done in America, and our workers and our technologists will go to America, where they will find a ready welcome awaiting them.

Of course we do not say, and it would be absurd to say, that no project in this field should ever be cancelled, let alone that no project should ever be reviewed. Of course they should. We do not question the Government's right to review this project, though I think we have some right to question the way in which they announced it beforehand. What we question is what in my opinion is an over-simple view—though it sounds at first hand self-evident—that the best time to cut is always before the money has been spent on development. It is simple to say, "Here is a project which may cost £340 million. Clearly the best time to cut it is now, when we have spent only about £20 million". That is not necessarily true at all. If this is research and development which must be done if we are not to lose a whole field of technology to the Americans, then certainly it is not better to cut it now. It is necessary to have the research and development done and to get the break-through for ourselves.

I am rather surprised that no hon. Member opposite has yet asked, "What about Blue Streak?" As a matter of fact, Blue Streak is a project which it seems to me is threatened by this Government. Our Government did not cancel Blue Streak, except as a weapon. Development of Blue Streak is still going on in connection with the E.L.D.O. project. The point is that the real break-through on the rocket side of Blue Streak had been achieved before the cancellation of the weapon project took place. One of the questions with which I ask the right hon. Gentleman to deal in his reply is this: can he tell us whether there is any truth in the further rumours that the E.L.D.O. project, and with it the future of satellite communications as well as space launchers, is in danger in addition to the Concord programme?

Of course these things are always expensive. When we are operating on the frontiers of knowledge, the costs are never precisely predictable, except that they will always be large and will always be increasing. The point surely is this: when we are operating not only on the frontiers of knowledge but on the frontiers of practical experiment, we have to have a break-through or all we do is worth nothing. Unless we are prepared to go to the point of break-through, there is no point in going into this at all.

That is why, I confess, the talk about compromise solutions has rather alarmed me. I am not at all sure that there is any satisfactory compromise short of at least taking this aircraft to prototype stage. The hon. Member for Coventry, North mentioned this. I am inclined to doubt whether he is right in believing that that is a viable compromise even so, because I believe that we should possibly lose in the subsequent development too great a lead to the Americans.

I have promised the right hon. Gentleman that I will sit down at 9.25 p.m., and in conclusion I want to deal with some of the fears which have been expressed. There will always be fears expressed about projects of this kind. There always have been, and the loudest and most dismal noises will almost certainly be made by the airline Corporations.

I implore the right hon. Gentleman to listen to those with a somewhat sceptical ear. It would be going too far to say that no airline never wants to buy a new type of aircraft, although it is true that they much prefer to amortise the ones they have and go on using them as long as they can without having to go through the organisational and technical difficulties attendant on the introduction of a new aircraft.

No airline would willingly make the great jump from subsonic to supersonic passenger travel—that is, unless it thought that another airline would get in first. If they could put it off for another 10 years, with no airline jumping the gun on them, I believe that it is likely that most airlines would prefer to do this. So their evidence is not the best evidence here. We know what the American view is likely to be on this. I have heard it suggested that a sigh of relief would go up in America if we cancel the Concord project and that they would drop their own research and development. It would not be a sigh of relief. There would be a shout of joy. As was said by the hon. Member for Coventry, North, they would go straight back into the development of a Mach 2·2 aircraft of their own. There is no half-way house here.

We have this lead, which has been hard-earned by organisation, the confidence of the late Government and the work and inspiration of thousands of workers and technologists in the aerospace industry. My hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Mr. Marten) was right when he said that the Americans will stop at nothing to get us and the French out of the aerospace industry; and when he said "stop at nothing" that was, if anything, an understatement.

I do not know whether the Minister has ever seen the American aircraft industry at close quarters working on the development of a market. I saw what the Lockheed company did in Australia to try to get a stranglehold on the Australian market. He may have seen in the newspapers in the last few days reports about the Douglas company's efforts in Argentina to keep out the VC 10 and get a stranglehold on that market. This is no kid glove job, I assure him.

The point, surely, is that this supersonic form of transport is going to come. The question is whether not only this country but Western Europe is going to get there first, which it can now do, or whether it will hand this on a plate to the Americans. I would, therefore, ask the right hon. Gentleman whether he will give us clear answers to several questions. We need to know more about the history of this thing. We want to know who was consulted before the original statement was made; on whose advice was the first step taken—was it his own Ministry's, the Treasury's, the Americans', or Mr. Worcester's; what has been the cost so far; what is the estimated cost to completion; and whether he agrees with his hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough, West that the amount of technological fall-out is insignificant? We would also like to know his estimate of the probable unemployment which cancellation would cause in the aircraft industry here; and whether E.L.D.O. and other space and aircraft projects are also threatened in his review.

These are the questions we need answered. Finally, if this decision has not been taken, we implore not only the Minister and the Prime Minister but the whole Government to show us that they really meant what they said when they talked about this advance into the great technological age of the new Britain. Let them show us whether this was more than sheer humbug or whether, really, they are —what, frankly, we have always suspected they were—rather reactionary, restrictionist little Englanders who, rather than adventure bravely on the frontiers of knowledge, would prefer to sit tight and do anything for a quiet life.