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TSR-2 – Part II

Prof David Edgerton speaks to Emmett Sullivan about the social and cultural impact of the cancellation of the TSR-2.
EMMETT 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?
DAVID 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.
On 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.
So 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.
EMMETT 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?
DAVID 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.
But 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.
EMMETT 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.
DAVID EDGERTON: It’s as late as that.
EMMETT SULLIVAN: It’s as late as that.
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).

In the video step which follows we are going to use a short extract from an interview with Prof David Edgerton from King’s College London. Principally, we are focussing on themes from his book ‘England and the Aeroplane: Militarism, Modernity and Machines’ (2013) and the cancellation of the TSR2.

As a recap or clarification on some of the terms in the video to follow:

The McMahon Act, formally known as the Atomic Energy Act of 1946, was an act for the development and control of atomic energy to be kept with the US federal government. This was despite the fact that the nuclear energy had been developed with its wartime allies Canada and Great Britain, and it caused animosity between the three countries. Such action led to Britain deciding to build its own nuclear deterrent, although an amendment in 1958 meant that the US would now share information with its closest allies, i.e. Britain and Canada, if the need arose.

The Buccaneer was fully retired in 1994.

The phrase “bigger bang for the buck” refers in this instance to its use by Charles Wilson, the US Secretary of Defence under President Eisenhower. He used the expression in 1954 when describing America’s changing attitudes towards defence, arguing that the ‘New Look’ policy initiated by Eisenhower was to decrease defence spending by concentrating on nuclear weapons rather than conventional forces.

Atomic diplomacy refers to attempts to use the threat of nuclear warfare in order to achieve diplomatic goals. Following Hiroshima and Nagasaki, this form of diplomacy became central to not only American politics, but also the general world order and the relationship between the two superpowers. More information regarding atomic diplomacy can be found here.

‘Mutually Assured Destruction’ (MAD) was a phase of Cold War history that threatened nuclear war, and also prevented it. Following the Soviet’s gaining nuclear power, the Cold War immediately escalated in terms of arms production, whereby each side now had the ability to destroy the other many times over. MAD was officially accepted in military doctrine, and began to come to the forefront during the Kennedy Administration following the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. MAD reflects the concept that one’s population was equally at risk following a nuclear strike on an enemy’s population, as both sides would face the same vulnerabilities, i.e. whoever shot first would die second. This concept came to define the Cold War era.

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

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