Picking losers
: Concorde, nuclear power, and their opponents in post-war Britain, 1954-1995

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


Through examining the opposition to Concorde and nuclear power in post-war Britain, this thesis rewrites the histories of these long-running projects, changing our understanding of who opposed them and why they survived. In doing so, it makes new arguments about the rundown of the state research effort, the origins of Thatcherism and the operation of political power.

In both cases, the opposition was not just on environmental grounds, but on economic and industrial ones too. The most persistent and influential critics were not outside the state, but within it. As I show for the first time, the Treasury was the most important opponent of both programmes. This internal opposition generally lost the argument against the nationalist claims of state technicians, industrial lobbies and politicians, especially during the 1950s and 1960s. Ministers were not hoodwinked into these schemes for want of critical advice, as the most powerful existing analysis would suggest, but fought for them on nationalist grounds against internal opposition. Tony Benn saved both during the 1970s in a remarkable display of ministerial power, undermining claims of Whitehall dominance and rule by state technocrats.

Nevertheless, the opponents succeeded in achieving a massive reduction in both the production of Concorde, and in the scale of future nuclear programmes in the early 1970s. Ministers fought for bare minimum commitments. Writing in these effective cancellations confirms the existing picture that the ‘white heat’ marked an end of techno-nationalist triumphalism and shows that a disillusion with state power, a rejection of a research-intensive state, and indeed the adoption of economic liberalism, did not enter the British state afresh with the Thatcher governments. Yet, under the Thatcher governments too, there was an effort to maintain a national military-industrial complex. There was also support for elements of the national nuclear power programme as well as for a huge new programme using American-designed reactors. All such policies faced Treasury opposition, but provoked little public outcry. It was only during the 1990s that the decisive shift away from techno-nationalism became really apparent.

The conclusion of this thesis reflects on what these retold histories mean for how we frame post-war British history, particularly when the key shifts in its changing political economy occurred, whether there was a ‘post-war consensus’ and the weakness of its social democratic politics.

This thesis is built from previously unused primary sources and has made extensive use of the state archives on Concorde, nuclear power policy and defence procurement under Thatcher for the first time.
Date of Award1 Dec 2020
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • King's College London
SupervisorDavid Edgerton (Supervisor) & Richard Vinen (Supervisor)

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