Orders of the Day — 300 GeV ACCELERATOR

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 24th July 1968.

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Photo of Sir Peter Kirk Sir Peter Kirk , Saffron Walden 12:00 am, 24th July 1968

In opening this debate on the failure of the Government to take part in the development of the 300 GeV accelerator under the European Organisation for Nuclear Research, I can promise that I will at least be brief. This is not because the subject is unimportant, quite the contrary. It is a matter of very great importance in many directions.

There are two aspects of vital importance. One is the scientific progress, particularly to do with high energy physics, and I freely admit that I am not qualified to speak on that, not only because I have no scientific training, but because I find it difficult to understand the vast implications of these developments. My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Garston (Mr. Fortescue), if he is fortunate enough to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, will be able to expatiate on this to a greater extent.

The other aspect, which concerns me, is the political aspect. We are not only concerned with the development of nuclear physics, important though this is; we are also concerned with the relationship between this country and the continent of Europe. It is this which must give rise to the very gravest consideration when one comes to assess the correctness, or otherwise, of the Government's decision not to go ahead with this project.

The European Organisation for Nuclear Research, or C.E.R.N., is one of the most outstanding examples of international co-operation that the continent of Europe has yet produced. It owes nothing, either to the Treaty of Rome or any of the other treaties, nor to bodies like the Council of Europe, or Western European Union. It is self-sufficient and has been so successful that it has probably a unique achievement to its credit. It has created a "brain drain" in reverse.

I do not just mean that it has kept on this side of the Atlantic scientists who would otherwise have been lost to the United States, but it has attracted scientists from the United States, now working at Geneva on the 28 GeV accelerator. Last September, as a member of the Scientific and Technological Committee of the Council of Europe, I had the privilege, with the right hon. Member for Stepney (Mr. Shore) of visiting this project. I regret that there are so few non. Members opposite, but it is understandable at this hour. Had the right hon. Member been here, he would have agreed with me that we were much impressed by the work done, and planned there. It was made plain that the work to be done on the 28 GeV would not be sufficient to keep them going and that they had to move into a new sphere —as the Minister will know, the 300 GeV accelerator, which will be the largest of its type in the world.

It is true, as someone pointed out in a letter toThe Times a fortnight ago, that it would not necessarily remain the largest in the world for any length of time. The Americans are developing a 200 GeV which they could double in capacity if they felt like going ahead with it. Nevertheless, it would be a considerable achievement for European science. Scientifically, it is a matter of considerable importance, but much more it is a matter of practical European international co-operation of a kind which those of us who support the Government's policy of approaching as near as they can to Europe believe should be welcomed. Therefore, it is all the more regrettable that the Government have decided not to go ahead with this project.

It is not too much to say that the Government's decision has caused immense dismay throughout the scientific community in this country. One has only to read, not only journals like theNew Scientist, but the correspondence columns ofThe Times to realise that scientists generally regard this as a body blow— and with some reason. But I am more concerned with the effect it has had out- side this country where it has been regarded, not just as a body blow to European co-operation, but as the denial of all the fair words which the Government have been saying for many months about technological co-operation with Europe.

Only 10 days ago I attended in my capacity as a member of W.E.U. a meeting in Bonn, in company with my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, South-West (Mr. Tom Boardman) and the hon. Member for Bilston (Mr. Robert Edwards), at which we were severely criticised, to which we had no defence because we were attacked by Europeans who said, "You say that you want technological co-operation with Europe. Here is the perfect example of a venture in which Europe has something to give and in which Britain has something to give and you will not touch it".

The attack has taken place not only on the Parliamentary front. I will cite only one newspaper cutting, and I apologise to the House for the fact that it is fromLe Monde of 22nd June and therefore is in French. I understand that I would be out of order if I were to read it as it is. I have made a translation of it. I will not vouch for its accuracy, but I think that it is pretty accurate: The refusal of British participation will not fail to be interpreted as proof of the lack of interest that exists on the other side of the Channel in scientific and technological cooperation. By this fact, it contradicts the offer of Mr. Wilson to create a technological community with the Continental countries to resist still further American competition.Le Monde is not a newspaper which is hostile to this country. On the contrary, it has consistently backed our co-operation with and entry to the Common Market and has consistently opposed the French Government's policy in keeping us out. If this newspaper is led to say things like that, the situation is serious indeed.

One can understand why it said it. One can remember what has been said. I remember very well the speech of the Prime Minister at Strasbourg in January last year—that great speech in which he repeated over and over again the phrase "We mean business". One could get exquisite pleasure from quoting the right hon. Gentleman's old speeches; this has been true for some months. I do not want to indulge in that game to any great extent. But his speech went in considerable detail into the advantages which Europe would gain from technological co-operation with Britain. The right hon. Gentleman said: Let us not be defeatist about Europe's technological contribution compared with that of the United States. … what would the American industrial economy look like today without jet aircraft, directly based on a British invention … the electronic revolution based on the British development of radar; indeed, the entire nuclear superstructure which could never have been created except on the basic research of Rutherford and other British scientists". I do not know what Rutherford's comment would be on that statement in view of the Government's decision not to go ahead in the one field in which Rutherford perhaps more than any other man was a pioneer.

The Prime Minister did not leave it there. He came back to the subject at Strasbourg when he thought that possibly we would get into the Common Market. He was carried away in a moment of enthusiasm to say things which he would not have said otherwise. The Prime Minister returned to the theme at the Lord Mayor's banquet on 13th November last. We all remember what he said about the seven great points of technological co-operation. I quoted what he said about the second, because I do not want to misjudge him in any way: We are ready, too, to embark on urgent multi-lateral discussions with our European partners designed to create a new and dynamic European technology. I do not want to prejudge where such consultations might lead, but we are prepared to go as far and as fast as, indeed perhaps further and faster than, any country in Europe in preparing the technological co-operation and integration that can give a new impetus to a European economic union". "Perhaps further and faster" were the words, and in pursuance of that pledge given by the Prime Minister we have come to a stop.

It is true that Britain is in economic difficulties. It was in economic difficulties when the Prime Minister gave that pledge last November. It was even in economic difficulties when he made his speech at Strasbourg in January of last year. He knew the score. In March of this year, in a debate in the early hours of the morning on the Consolidated Fund Bill—that debate was initiated by my hon. Friend the Member for the Isle of Ely (Sir H. Legge-Bourke); it is curious that a matter of this importance can be debated apparently only on the Consolidated Fund Bill and that neither Front Bench is prepared to give time to debate subjects of this kind—the hon. Lady mentioned the figure of £44 million as the British contribution over that period of eight to nine years". This is a large sum of money. Will the hon. Lady say tonight that for that amount of money we are prepared to throw away the whole basis of technological co-operation with Europe, because this is what is involved? I have a feeling that it will be something else— something which was foreshadowed, not only in the hon. Lady's speech on 27th March, but which was even foreshadowed in the Prime Minister's speech at the Guildhall. Before this great phrase about going "further and faster" than anybody else, the Prime Minister had put down his project No. 1 of the seven principles in this way: We are prepared now to embark on bilateral projects"— this is not strictly a bilateral project— with any European partner ready to respond to a technological co-operation in any field where such a partnership can yield worthwhile industrial results, and when I refer to bilateral co-operation, I do not have in mind costly Government-financed ventures, whether in space or elsewhere. If I wanted to logic-chop, I could say that this is not a bilateral venture. It is a multilateral venture and, therefore, was not presumably covered by the Prime Minister's words.

I want to explore a little more closely what the Prime Minister meant. In her speech on 27th March the hon. Lady said this: The difficult question … is precisely what the scientific and perhaps technological returns on any given investment in scientific research are likely to be. It may be that a large investment in nuclear physics will prove to have been well made. But there is some feeling in the scientific community that the share that has gone to nuclear physics over the last ten years is rather high as against the requirements of other sciences."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 26th March, 1968; Vol. 761, c. 1393–6.] If Lord Rutherford had adopted that point of view in the early 1930s, we would never have had any development in nuclear physics. If when he started out on this road he had counted only the possible investment returns, nobody could have told him then and he certainly could not have said whether there would be any return. C.E.R.N. says quite frankly that it does not know whether there will be a return.

Apparently it is now the Government's policy—we should try to get this confirmed by the hon. Lady tonight—that the only multilateral projects on either a European or a wider basis that they are now prepared to invest in are those which have a somewhat dubious commercial advantage—Concorde, in which the Government are prepared to invest an incredible amount, the airbus, although it is doubtful whether that will ever get off the ground, and one or two other projects like that. The Government have abandoned a project in a field in which the Government should be concentrating their thoughts on pure fundamental research, one of the rare fields where Government intervention is not only justified but necessary.

This is the lesson of this sorry affair. I regret it deeply not only from a scientific point of view, but as one who, during the 13 years that I have been a Member of this House, has stood for one thing perhaps more than any other, namely, the integration of this country with the continent of Europe. One reason why I supported the Government when they made their application to join the Community last year was because I thought that they were serious when they said that even if we did not get in we would carry on with technological cooperation. I thought that the Prime Minister's speech at Guildhall last Nove-ember was a serious speech intended to set out a serious programmee. What has happened over this project, as well as over E.L.D.O. and a number of other projects, has proved that, for all the fair words, the deeds do not follow. The result is that all the credibility we had in Europe has been completely lost.

I hope that, even at this late hour, it may be possible for the Government to change their mind. If not, I hope that, when a Conservative Government are returned and we get back to sane policies, it may again be possible to resume the technological and scientific co-operation with Europe which has so wantonly been thrown away.