The White Heat of Science, Technology and European Politics in the 1960s

In July last year (2013), the 50th anniversary of Harold Wilson’s well-known ‘White Heat’ speech was marked by a one-day conference exploring its background and legacy. The importance of the speech by the former Labour Prime Minister was strongly underlined in a series of short articles in The Guardian deriving from the papers presented at the conference. One article focused on ELDO (the European Space Vehicle Launcher Development Organisation) as symbolic of Wilson’s attitude and policy towards European science and technology. In choosing this example, the article is unremarkable. ELDO is a common project to focus on for historians interested in Britain’s relations with Europe in the mid- to late-1960s. The article argues that Wilson sought to replace ELDO with a viable European space organisation at the risk of damaging diplomatic relations with other European countries, especially France, at a time when Labour were in the midst of preparing Britain’s second bid to join the European Community. In conclusion, the article stresses that Wilson succeeded in “striking the right balance between satisfying scientific and diplomatic priorities”, implying that science and political diplomacy were two separate, somewhat conflicting and incompatible, areas of policy. Other historians have argued that Labour merely used science and technology as selling points and lures in a diplomatic game to woo de Gaulle into admitting Britain into the European Community. If we look at European collaboration in science and technology using examples other than ELDO, and look at what Wilson had in mind for the future of European science and technology as the 1960s unfolded, the idea that science and diplomacy existed as separate policy agendas, or that science was used solely to satisfy diplomatic aims, unravels. Rather, the benefits gained from integrating European industries and scientific expertise was one of the main reasons for the Labour government of 1966–1970 wanting to get into the European Community. In trying to describe the relations between science, technology and politics we should not disentangle them or set up simplistic relations. Only by describing the complexity of their interaction do we get a more accurate historical portrayal of what happened.

During Labour’s term in office between 1966 and 1970 the policy towards European science and technology led by Wilson and Tony Benn, the then Minister in the Ministry of Technology (MinTech), was to reduce the frequency of short-term ‘projects’ such as ELDO. Turning away from a series of one-off projects, Wilson and Benn envisaged the future of European science and technology through integrating European industry on a more secure long-term foundation, and led by European companies themselves. Labour’s ambitions stretched far. The Industrial Reorganisation Corporation (IRC), which was founded in 1966 for encouraging UK mergers and larger UK companies in order to increase the scale of production units, had aroused interest around Europe. Benn wrote to Wilson in November 1967 that a ‘Eurotech’ and ‘European Reorganisation Corporation’ are ‘not inconceivable’. A more solid example of Labour’s approach to Europe was the idea for a ‘European Technological Centre’ (ETC) which shows Labour’s attitude towards ELDO in its proper light. With Wilson’s assent, in May 1968 Benn suggested that the money saved from the government pulling out of ELDO would go to financing the ETC. The idea of a technology centre first featured as part of Wilson’s proposal for a ‘European Technological Community’ in November 1967. Following a trip by G. Bowen, the head of Mintech’s International Relations and General Secretariat, to sell the idea of a technology centre to members of the European Community in May 1968, and the discussions of a Cabinet Working Group on the ETC which was set up by Wilson himself earlier in the year, the centre went from an idea to a plan of action. By the summer of 1968, Bowen had gained interest and support from the European Commission and both the larger principles governing the centre and the details of how the centre would operate were worked out. Research teams of industrialists, experts from research institutes and government specially recruited by the centre, would assess the needs of European industries and suggest remedial action as well as researching the needs of the market to guide European industries towards making the best use of their industrial capability. In line with MinTech’s emphasis in their domestic industrial policy on production as a key determinant of industrial profitability, the centre would also study methods of production. This stemmed from MinTech’s belief that the US was better at technological innovation in the more advanced and science-based sectors not because of the lack of inventiveness in Europe, but because of the benefits stemming from the volume of sales in a large home market which offset high R&D costs and expenditure on equipment and marketing, and, importantly, allowed US companies to plan their operations with a long-term view in mind. According to Bowen, the European Technological Centre was intended to get European businesses into the ‘habit’ of thinking and organising on a continental scale and help governments and industry plan for technological change.

During their term in office, an enduring European industrial policy was being worked out by Labour. For several unforeseen and external reasons, not to mention that Labour were competing with other proposals for how to integrate Europe’s scientific expertise, Labour could not get enough backing from other European nations to turn the plan into reality. Wilson consequently asked for the Centre to be ‘kept on ice in readiness’ for more propitious political conditions. When we look closer at Labour’s science and technology policy in relation to their approach to Europe, focusing on ELDO falls well short of describing the strategy Labour were devising during their term in office. This point seems to add emphasis to David Edgerton’s comment that ‘the deep darkness’ of what Wilson’s Labour government learned in office is where we can find the reality of Labour’s science policy. Between 1966 and 1970, British and European interests became thought of by Labour’s leaders as inseparable, mutually beneficial, and very distinct from other international relations. What is more, Labour leaders were very conscious of their evolving approach towards Europe. Nothing revealed this so well as the letter written by Tony Benn to the Prime Minister Harold Wilson on 8th November 1967. Referring to Wilson’s upcoming Guildhall speech, which was to focus on the benefits for Britain and other European countries of a ‘European Technological Community’, Benn wrote: ‘Your speech could be as significant for European technology as your Scarborough speech of 1963 was for British technology’. By the late 1960s, the White Heat of Britain’s scientific revolution was thought to burn brighter and faster if the revolution occurred throughout Europe. 

Curiously, although Wilson and Benn were aiming for less ‘project-based’ collaboration in Europe and for alternative and more durable types of cooperation, in the area of military collaboration project-based collaborations were taking off. Furthermore, project-based military and civil collaborations were often learned from and set up differently with the agreement of each new project. There was no one way to do project-based collaborations. After all, European collaboration was a policy experiment and pragmatism was vital if best practices in how to collaborate were to be found. Adding a twist to this observation, it was a fact that two projects could have similar work-sharing agreements, as did the civil supersonic airliner Concorde and the Martel missile for instance, in which British and French firms manufactured parts separately ready for assembly at the end of the manufacturing process. But whereas the Martel Missile work-sharing agreement worked relatively smoothly, this approach proved very costly for manufacturing a supersonic plane. What is most fascinating about European inter-governmental projects to build aircraft and missiles in the 1960s was that these types of agreement proved to be very good at getting things built. For instance, the two Anglo-French projects, Concorde and the Martel missile, were continued by Labour when they entered government in 1966 in contrast to three major inherited unilateral RAF programmes which were cancelled. Indeed, whereas the US Congress ordered Boeing to abandon their unilateral attempt to build a supersonic civil airliner to rival Concorde after spending some $864 million between 1967 and 1971, the political sensitivity involved in breaking an inter-governmental Anglo-French agreement got the expensive Concorde built. Advanced technologies are often expensive to develop, manufacture and produce. Giving governments a reason to pursue the development of such technologies can help advanced technologies see life beyond the prototype stage.

We can see then that Wilson’s and Benn’s European industrial policy shared a common aim with Labour’s defence policy. Both took, more and more, a European perspective. In reflecting on the Anglo-French agreement to jointly develop the Jaguar and AFVG aircraft in 1965, the Labour Secretary of State for Defence, Dennis Healey, remarked in June 1966 that: ‘I feel very strongly that a great effort should be made to retain an independent European capability for military aircraft development and production’. Wilson and Benn were probably right to look for more permanent ways to integrate European industrial and scientific organisations. However, it would be a mistake to think that the project-based approach did not create long-term cooperation. For example, it was unthinkable in the 1960s, but today a European civil airliner organisation Airbus Industrie can compete in sales and profitability with the US firm Boeing. How did the success of Airbus Industrie begin? — with the Anglo-French inter-governmental project to produce a short-haul civil airliner named Airbus. Today, Airbus Industrie is a mainstay of Europe’s civil aircraft industry. This suggests that project-based collaborations do not have to be limited to when the project starts and finishes. Projects can get companies used to working together, can create bonds that last beyond the given project, can help share useful techniques and, as in the case of Airbus Industrie, can turn into full-scale commercial operations.

In the 1960s, many popular commentators on European science and technology, such as Christopher Layton, Michael Shanks and Jean-Jacques Servan Schrieber, thought that European collaboration was a necessity first, an ideal second. Why? — because both the US and the USSR posed technological threats to Europe’s prosperity. At the time, perhaps one could only think of European cooperation in these terms. But European cooperation can be seen another way too. Since the end of the Second World War, Europe’s ‘common university traditions and the geographical proximity of countries comparable in industrial and technical development’ has helped foster unparalleled cooperation and integration between sovereign nation-states in Europe and between the industries and scientific organisations existing therein. Europe’s political cooperation is an experiment on a vast scale, and so has been the cooperation in science and technology which has added new dimensions to the ties linking European nations. It would take some time to list the many joint European ventures in civil and military science and technology that have occurred since the end of the Second World War. It should be noted that Britain has had a large hand in the creation of some of the most famous such as the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (CERN) founded in 1953, or the European Molecular Biology Organisation (EMBO), founded in 1964. But to focus on a few of these organisations would be a mistake, despite the pride we take in them. Somehow, we have to find room in our evaluation of European science and technology for all of these organisations. What is more, there are many different types of cooperation which should be included, not least inter-governmental and industry-to-industry cooperation between European countries which is often overlooked by historians. 

Let us conclude. This blog post has highlighted a different history to what is normally told about science and technology, the White Heat, and the Labour party in the 1960s. The White Heat of Britain’s scientific revolution found its catalyst, in Labour’s eyes, in the larger furnace of Europe. Wilson and Benn thought their domestic industrial aims could be realised by involving other European nations within their plan to create European-sized enterprises to rival the US and USSR in production capability and the many benefits that capability brought with it. Wilson and Benn wanted membership of the European Community to further these designs. Science and technology were not used as pawns in a diplomatic game, as many historians suggest. Nor were they in conflict or incompatible with the diplomatic aims of Labour. Labour were evolving their approach to Europe during their term in office between 1966 and 1970, and their idea for a European Technological Community was taking shape and given substance, for instance, in the design and push for a European Technological Centre. Today it would be seen as radical for a European government to suggest the creation of a European equivalent to an IRC or a MinTech, yet Tony Benn had made such a suggestion in the 1960s before Britain was even a member of the European Community. The Labour government of 1966–1970 is known for its radical objectives in science and technology. Perhaps nothing was as radical as Labour’s approach towards Europe, driven by a desire to forge the future of domestic and European science and technology under one policy. 

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