The events that finally led to the cancellation of Blue Streak began as a consequence of a meeting at the Prime Minister’s country home, Chequers, in June 1959, referred to in Sandys’ note above. The guest list for that weekend is quite impressive:
Harold Macmillan, Prime Minister;
Sir Norman Brook, Cabinet Secretary;
Sir Roger Makins, Joint Permanent Secretary to the Treasury;
Sir Frederick Hoyer Millar, Permanent Secretary at the Foreign Office;
Sir Patrick Dean, Chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC);
Sir Richard Powell, Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Defence;
Marshall of the RAF Sir William Dickson, Chief of the Defence Staff; Admiral Sir John Caspar, Vice Chief of the Naval Staff;
Marshal of the RAF Sir Dermot Boyle, Chief of the Air Staff;
Lt. Gen. Sir William Stratton, Vice-Chief of the Imperial General Staff;
Lord Plowden of the Atomic Energy Authority.
This was indeed an august gathering: their brief from the Prime Minister was to try and look ten years into the future and plan for the changes that they saw coming. In the words of Norman Brook, the Cabinet Secretary, ‘The purpose of the meeting is to put in hand a study of future policy… This study will be undertaken by officials – the Prime Minister does not wish other Ministers to be troubled with it at this stage.’6. There may well have been a subtext behind that last comment, perhaps along the lines that the Prime Minister wanted a relatively disinterested viewpoint for his future-gazing. The Civil Service and the military could also give a longer term view – they would still be there, implementing policy, long after the politicians had gone.
Their focus, as can be seen from the people present, was foreign policy and defence. A major issue at the time was the size of the Defence budget – indeed, the appointment of Sandys as Minister of Defence, and the resultant 1957 Defence White Paper, was intended as the first step in the rationalisation of defence spending. The intention was to keep defence expenditure at 7% of total Government spending, and indeed the deterrent was invoked as part of this. Nuclear deterrence could mean less money spent on conventional arms. In anticipation, the Air Staff had provided briefing papers on the various deterrent options for the assembly.
The deterrent at that time was being maintained by the V bombers, which would shortly be supplemented by Blue Steel. Soon bombers would be obsolete in the strategic role, and the only possible replacement available was Blue Streak. In the words (almost) of another Prime Minister, There Was No Alternative. Blue Streak might have been highly unpopular in Whitehall, but in the absence of a viable alternative it was either Blue Streak or no deterrent at all.
The RAF were not happy with the tone of the discussion when it came to deterrent policy:
It was obvious in the Working Group’s discussions that our sister services resent the overriding priority afforded the Deterrent (at present in RAF custody) under HMG’s policy, and are covetous of the money and resources assigned to it. They have endeavoured to cloak these base motives by advancing arguments of expediency in the guise of military and political rectitude.7
It has been said that the Services often spend more time fighting each other than fighting the enemy, and this is quite a good example of that maxim. That atmosphere of inter-Service enmity (particularly between the Navy and the RAF) should be borne in mind when watching how events unfolded.
‘Base motives’ or not, at the end of their deliberations the Working Group ‘invited the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Defence to consider further with the Secretary of the Cabinet the question of a separate inquiry into the means of delivery of the British contribution to the nuclear deterrent’8.
Sir Richard Powell was the Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Defence at that time, and having been given this brief, he wrote to Sandys, then Minister, about setting up an inquiry. As we have seen, Sandys was not at all keen for any inquiry.
Other matters intervened with the General Election of October 1959. During the run-up to an election much of Government is put on hold: Ministers have other pre-occupations, and there is little point in going ahead with projects if a change of government means they will be reviewed. There is always a hiatus in Whitehall as the new ministers come in and are brought up to speed on their department.
General Elections also give Prime Ministers the opportunity to reshuffle their Cabinet, and this one was no exception. Sandys was replaced as Minister of Defence by Harold Watkinson, a career politician who had been a businessman and had no great ideological position as far as defence was concerned – he set out to be a practical man, who would bring a businesslike approach to the department rather than an ideological one. His obituary in ‘The Independent’ newspaper says of him that:
He was, already, a highly successful businessman and, like many before and after him (the late John Davies and today Sir James Goldsmith spring to mind), believed that businessmen could handle government far more efficiently and effectively than could politicians. He found out, however, that politics was an art of its own, and that the methods of man management that he had evolved for himself in business were ineffective when applied to the emotional, and often tortuous, handling of political affairs.9
Sandys himself was moved to a renamed Ministry of Supply – now the Ministry of Aviation – with the brief to ‘rationalise’ the aircraft industry. In many ways this can be seen as a demotion, or certainly a sideways move, given that he had been Minister of Supply in 1952 – so much so he asked Macmillan for assurances that his Cabinet seniority would not be affected.
It could be argued that Sandys had fulfilled his brief as Minister of Defence, and had taken his reforms as far as he could. His personal relations with some of the senior military figures had not always been good, and it was probably time for him to move on. Whether the ongoing Blue Streak saga was also a contributory factor is open to debate.
Sandys having gone, the way was clear to the setting up of the British Nuclear Deterrent (Study Group) or BND(SG) (known affectionately to the Admiralty in a later incarnation as the ‘Benders’, presumably from ‘BNDS’). On the face of it, the composition of the Study Group was impeccable:
Sir Richard Powell, Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Defence;
Sir William Strath, Chief Scientist at the Ministry of Aviation;
Sir Frederick Brundrett, Chief Scientist at the Ministry of Defence;
Sir Patrick Dean of the Foreign Office and Chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee;
Mr. B. D. Fraser of the Treasury;
Vice-Admiral Durlacher, Deputy Chief of the Naval Staff;
Lt.-General Sir William Stratton, Vice-Chief of the Imperial General Staff; Air Marshal Sir Edmund Hudlestone, Vice-Chief of the Air Staff;
Sir William Cook of the Atomic Energy Authority.
This was a high-powered group of men, and any conclusion they arrived at would be buttressed by the authority of their rank. Needless to say, their deliberations would have to be extremely confidential, since any leak could have considerable consequences. Having said that, it is clear that the Ministry of Aviation seemed to be ‘out of the loop’, despite their Chief Scientist being a member of the Study Group. After the report had been issued, the CGWL, Sir Steuart Mitchell, complained that
Adequate opportunities did not occur during the drafting of their report by the Study Group for my Controllerate to brief you properly on the technical issues as they arose, nor to discuss with you the conclusions and recommendations of the report.
I write this to say that now that I have seen the report I am seriously disturbed at the picture it presents in so far as the technical issues are involved, and that I disagree with some of the conclusions.
I am having those technical aspects of the report which lie in my sphere examined (for the first time) in detail and will submit some comments on them to you in a few weeks’ time.
Comments such as these from the CGWL show that the BND(SG) must have been distinctly selective in whom it chose to consult. It also shows how well they were able to keep their discussions under wraps.
Sandys himself seems to have had no prior warning either. The Treasury was delaying the authorisation of funds for further development, and as late as 25 January 1960, he was writing:
Therefore, unless the Defence White Paper contains an announcement that Blue Streak is to be abandoned, which I regard as inconceivable, and which I would, of course, strongly resist, I must ask you to give the ‘all clear’ so that further serious delays can be avoided.10
The wording could, of course, be political disingenuousness, but it does not sound like the words of a man who has read the Study Group’s report – or at least
who has heard about their conclusions. The Chancellor, Derek Heathcote Amory, replied on 4 February:
I do not think it would be reasonable, at a time when the future of the weapon is the subject of a searching review as a major question of defence policy, to accept that the programme should suffer no delay… I am afraid therefore that I still feel unable to authorise the further expenditure referred to.11
He also cited a previous hold up of funds (the Prime Minister’s note of December 1958) as a precedent.
Another part of his letter caused one of the officials in the Ministry of Aviation to note:
The Chancellor is stretching things very far when he says that the possibility of the weapon coming into service late has been one of the considerations necessitating the current review. The Chancellor, having always disliked the Blue Streak policy, might indeed almost be thought to have done his best, by imposing financial restrictions, to ensure that he would be able to say that the weapon would be late and therefore not worth having but in fact it is only the complete hold up of fresh capital expenditure in the last four or five months that has caused us to wonder whether the little elbow room that we had in the R&D programme would no longer prove sufficient.
So who on the Study Group could be seen as opposed to Blue Streak? The position of the Services is interesting. Firstly, the Army would have no strong views on Blue Streak one way or other, except in terms of cost. Blue Streak would take up a relatively large proportion of the defence budget, money that could be used for conventional weapons. The positions of the RAF and Navy are more interesting.
Certainly, sections of the Navy, led by Mountbatten, were campaigning hard against Blue Streak and in favour of Polaris. A memo from Lord Selkirk, First Lord of the Admiralty, illustrates this quite clearly:
My aim last year was not only to make the Prime Minister, Minister of Defence, and other members of the Defence Committee aware of the potentialities of POLARIS, but also to check, so far as this was possible, the BLUE STREAK programme before it gathered momentum. We had some success. The decision at the turn of the year that BLUE STREAK should be allowed to proceed in 1959/60 was certainly accompanied by a growing realisation in the Defence Committee of its disadvantages and mounting costs.
Since then, however, BLUE STREAK has become more firmly established and it looks, at the moment as if the 1960/61 Estimates discussions this Autumn may strengthen it further. If this should be so, its formidable cost, as shown in the draft paper you attached, will become a most serious threat to our hopes of increasing the size of our conventional naval forces, even it the total defence vote were to be fairly substantially enlarged.
We must carefully consider our tactics for dealing with this. Whatever help we may get from the new CDS [Chief of Defence Staff, Mountbatten], I believe that we must be prepared to make the running ourselves.
As I see it, the Government is unlikely to go so far as to stop BLUE STREAK unless there is something which can be put in its place as the future British controlled contribution to the deterrent. From what you say, we are unlikely to be in a position this Autumn, even if we were asked to do so, to present for consideration a substitute programme for POLARIS submarines. What then can we do?12
And, of course, there the Navy hit the nail on the head. There was, at the time the Study Group began its deliberations, no single well-developed system that could be put in Blue Streak’s place. No British long-term possibility was even on the horizon, but there were possible American systems.
Polaris was showing great potential, but still had some way to go, and had other drawbacks, such as the need to build a fleet of atomic powered submarines from scratch. But during the few weeks that the Study Group deliberated, considerable progress was being made elsewhere on another missile – WS138A, or, as it would become better known, Skybolt.