Skip to 0 minutes and 6 secondsEMMETT SULLIVAN: I'm very grateful for the opportunity to speak to Professor David Edgerton of King's College, London, who's written extensively on modern British history but also the aircraft industry and technology in the recent past. I'd like to move on to your book England and the Aeroplane, and in this context the TSR-2. Could you talk a little bit about, in the context of, perhaps, national pride, the cultural impact of the Labour Government's cancelling of TSR-2 in 1965?

Skip to 0 minutes and 42 secondsDAVID EDGERTON: Yes, the aeroplane represented to Britain's commitment to modernity. It also represented its success in the Second World War. Even to this day, the Spitfire and the Lancaster are regarded as national symbols of immense importance. So imagine, in that context, what the cancellation of what people regard as a wonderfully important advance in military technology, the TSR-2, does for national pride. What the Labour Government does is not just cancel that TSR-2, but other, almost equally innovative aircraft projects. And it does it in a very particular context, the context of the so-called 'White Heat'. Actually, the White Heat of the scientific revolution, not the technological revolution. There seems to be a contradiction there.

Skip to 1 minute and 33 secondsOn the one hand, you want to promote computers, machine tools, all the modern technology. On the other hand you say, we don't want advanced British aeroplanes anymore. And that leads to a lot of protest, a lot of opposition to the belief that British Government doesn't want to support modern technology. But actually, it does. It just thinks that in the past the Conservative Government has over-invested . Over-invested massively, in fact, in military technologies. Not just the TSR-2, but also Blue Streak earlier in the 1950s, in an independent-- what had been an independent nuclear deterrent was no longer.

Skip to 2 minutes and 22 secondsSo by the early 1960s there was really an attempt to redirect British innovative effort towards sectors which could, in principle, yield a commercial advantage. These so-called prestige projects, like the TSR-2 were looked down upon by the Labour Government.

Skip to 2 minutes and 42 secondsEMMETT SULLIVAN: In the context of the free, online course we're providing here, we've talked about the progression from the cancellation of TSR-2 to the ordering and cancellation of the F-111, and I take every opportunity to describe it as the Aardvark because, as you know, it was only officially named that when it was taken out of service. But we then buy the Phantom, and eventually that's redeployed, and we have the Buccaneer as the interdictor to carry that role after '68. Now, that's an aircraft from the 1950s. Would we consider that a retrograde step?

Skip to 3 minutes and 21 secondsDAVID EDGERTON: Well, that's very interesting. In fact, in the postwar years aircraft had amazingly long lives. The Shackleton was essentially a World War II aeroplane in service into the 1980s. The Vulcans where in service from the 1950s into the 1980s. The Buccaneer, indeed, was an aeroplane designed in the '50s which goes in, I think, certainly into the 1970s. I can't remember when it's taken out of service. So yes, old airframes and, indeed, old engines had very, very long lives. But of course, other things were changing. Avionics was changing, the capacity of munitions was changing. But certainly, it is surprising to find how long-lived many of these Cold War aeroplanes turned out to be.

Skip to 4 minutes and 13 secondsBut your point about the importation of US aeroplanes is very important. I mean, that was of course scandalous that one of the greatest, most innovative nations when it came to aviation should be buying American hardware. That was rather hidden later on, as new European airplanes in which Britain participated became central to the RAF. But what was clear from the early 1950s was Britain-- that the RAF, like British airlines, would no longer depend exclusively on aircraft produced entirely in Britain.

Skip to 4 minutes and 54 secondsEMMETT SULLIVAN: Thank you for that, David. When we talk about the Gulf War in the course, we point out that one of the last service deployments of the Buccaneer was as a laser targeter for the Tornadoes.

Skip to 5 minutes and 7 secondsDAVID EDGERTON: It's as late as that.

Skip to 5 minutes and 8 secondsEMMETT SULLIVAN: It's as late as that.

TSR-2 – Part II

Prof David Edgerton

David is the Hans Rausing Professor of the History of Science and Technology and Professor of Modern British History at King’s College London.

As well as ‘England and the Aeroplane’, learners on this course may also be interested in some of David’s other work:

‘Britain’s War Machine: Weapons, Resources and Experts in the Second World War’ (Allen Lane/Penguin, 2011)

‘The Shock of the Old: Technology and Global History since 1900’ (Profile Books, 2007)

‘Warfare State: Britain 1920-1970’ (Cambridge University Press, 2005).

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This video is from the free online course:

From World War to White Heat: the RAF in the Cold War

Royal Holloway, University of London