The strongest political personality that looms out of this story is Duncan Sandys, who made an early reputation for himself during the Second World War in the context of German guided weapons. He was an effective if abrasive Minister, being Minister of Supply in the early 1950s, then Minister of Housing and Local Government. In that context he was also responsible for setting up the Civic Trust. In 1957 he was appointed Minister of Defence by Macmillan, and was arguably the first to get a grip on the Ministry with its divergent Service interests. Before Sandys there had been a rapid turnover of Ministers, who did not have time to stamp their authority on their Ministry. Certainly, he retains a considerable notoriety among aircraft buffs for the 1957 Defence White Paper, with its unspoken ‘no more manned aircraft’ philosophy. Given the speed of the White Paper, he was probably implementing policy that had been already laid out by others, principally Sir Frederick Brundrett, Chief Government Scientist at the Ministry, and also Chairman of the influential DRPC. A further motive behind Sandys’ appointment was to cut the cost of defence in general, and he was not a man to be easily deflected from his objectives. Certainly, he reduced defence expenditure to 7% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) at which level it broadly remained for many years. Part of the increased dependence on nuclear weapons was to cut the cost of conventional defence.
Sandys started the ball rolling for Blue Streak whilst Minister of Supply, and he remained a vigorous proponent whilst at Defence. At the end of 1959, he was moved to a new Ministry, Aviation, which took over many of the functions of Supply. It has been asserted that Macmillan appointed him to this post to start the rationalisation of the aircraft industry. It also cleared the way for a new Minister of Defence, Harold Watkinson, to cancel Blue Streak. Watkinson’s ministerial career was relatively short. It is quite likely that the fallout from the cancellation led to Sandys’ sideways move to Colonial Secretary, although this too was a post that would require a man not afraid to take unpopular decisions. As Aviation Minister he was succeeded by Peter Thorneycroft, who had previously resigned from the Macmillan Government as Chancellor over the level of government spending, and it was Thorneycroft who began the Anglo-French talks which later led to ELDO. Thorneycroft later became Minister of Defence.
The Wilson Government, despite its rhetoric of the ‘white heat of technological revolution’ cannot be seen as a government that pushed British technology. Beset by economic problems, research and development (R & D) is an easy target for politicians looking for economies. Few in his Government were scientists or technologists: to make Frank Cousins, a trade union boss of the old school, Minister of Technology was no doubt politically astute, but can be seen as typical of the political cynicism with which Wilson operated. He was succeeded as Minister of Technology by Tony Benn, who seems to have had enthusiasm for but not a great deal of understanding of modern technology.
Crossman, another important Minister of the Wilson Government, writing in his diaries, bemoans time spent in cabinet discussing Black Arrow. Technology had no appeal for him either. But how was Britain going to survive in the latter part of the twentieth century without exploiting advanced technology?
The Wilson Government from 1964 onwards brought a number of economists in to evaluate programmes on a cost-benefit analysis basis (Wilson himself had been an economics don at Oxford). The problem was that research programmes were analysed for their economic benefits, and this is a difficult if not impossible task. One of the points of starting research programmes is that their outcome is not always predictable, since the object of research is to look at matters that are uncertain or unknown.
Surprisingly, the greatest number of files on Blue Streak in the Public Record Office relate to the Foreign Office. This is as a consequence of the attempt to convert Blue Streak into a European satellite launcher. Hence it is not surprising that the Foreign Office were firm advocates of the project irrespective of any technical or economic merit.
The US comes into the picture indirectly, since, with its vastly greater resources, it had covered most of the ground in space and rocket technology before the UK. The warheads that would equip Blue Steel and would have equipped Blue Streak were of American origin, as was a good deal of the technology that went into Blue Streak. Competing with the US in space research or satellite launching was also often thought by those in Government to be pointless, given the progress that had been made in America and the resources available to the American Government. The closeness of the US and UK defence, intelligence and research establishments also often meant that the UK concentrated on certain rather narrow areas (for example, re-entry research) so as to have useful information to trade with the US. (The US would never give information away for nothing, but it would exchange information on a fairly generous basis.)