Unpopularity of Blue Streak
However, one further major question is left unanswered. The motives of the Services, the Ministry of Aviation, the Air Ministry and the Treasury appear obvious enough. What is not obvious is why the Ministry of Defence and Powell himself took the position they did.
There are several possible scenarios.
The first is that Powell himself, possibly in concert with other senior civil servants in other departments, felt that the project was insupportable. Although he did not have the authority himself to cancel it, he could set up circumstances that gave others the opportunity. Thus if the Treasury and the Chiefs of Staff were to object sufficiently, then the new and relatively inexperienced Minister, fresh to the Cabinet, had little choice. It is interesting that the major attack on the project was only mounted after the October 1959 election, when Sandys was moved from Defence to Aviation. It would also mean keeping the details of the report from Sandys at the Aviation ministry for as long as possible, which seems to have been the case.
Another possibility lies not with Powell but with Watkinson and Macmillan, as indicated in the Daily Mail article. Under this scenario, Watkinson is appointed by Macmillan with a specific brief to ensure the cancellation. But why would Macmillan want to do this?
A possible answer lies not in the cost, but the timing of the cost. Expenditure on Blue Streak would reach its peak from 1960 to 1965. Although expensive in terms of capital cost, its running costs were (or appeared to be) extremely low. Both Skybolt and Polaris were considerably less expensive to buy (the development costs would have been covered by the Americans) but their running costs were very much higher. Flying aircraft, or running submarines, does not come cheap. However, these running costs would not have been incurred for several years to come, which would be well beyond the lifetime of the Macmillan Government.
A further answer might lie in the silos themselves. It is curious that the estimates of the vulnerability of the silos were never questioned one way or the other. Although the Air Ministry and the Ministry of Supply had done the calculations as best they could, the design was still a paper one (indeed, the design of the lid, one of the most crucial points in any silo design, had not been finalised by the time of the cancellation). In a sense, this makes a nonsense of the whole argument: since no one actually knew the exact strength of the silos, the debate was in many ways so much hot air. But they would raise political difficulties. They would certainly consume a great deal of civil engineering resources, and the political impact of such large and controversial structures in Conservative constituencies should not be overlooked. Indeed, the Home Office under Butler had come into the argument at one stage, requesting that the silos be situated on the east side of the country so that, given prevailing westerly winds, fallout from an attack would to taken away from the UK. In addition, for Civil Defence purposes, Butler wanted the sites well away from centres of population.
But however well-disguised the real reasons were, and no matter how much the papers conceal the true motives, a very revealing letter was written a year after the cancellation. A Technical Sub-Committee was to be set up for the BND(SG), and Zuckerman wrote to various eminent scientists, inviting them to join. One was Sir Robert Cockburn, who had been working for the Government in various capacities since the war, and at one time had been CGWL at the Ministry of Aviation. He wrote back to Zuckerman, and one paragraph of his letter reads:
Blue Streak was cancelled because it was not politically viable rather than because it could be pre-empted. The scale of pre-emption was admitted to be of the order of
3,0 megatons. Supporters of the system argued that this was so excessive that preemption could be ignored in practice. The argument was not accepted and vulnerability was advanced as the main reason for cancellation. The real reasons were more fundamental although still not clearly appreciated. I suggest no British
statesman could visualise exploiting a deterrent threat which if mishandled could only lead to the annihilation of the whole country; nor could he believe that a threat involving such consequences would be taken seriously by an opponent.25
In other words, once missiles are fired, they cannot be recalled. And with missiles, which are seen as potentially vulnerable whilst on the ground, the incentive is to fire early. Bombers can be recalled, and they do not need to fire off their missiles until it is certain the UK has been attacked. The same is true of submarines lying undetected in the Atlantic. This, probably more than anything else, reflected the true reason why Blue Streak was cancelled.
The cancellation is a graphic example of how Whitehall can work. What is of more interest is the study of how much policy was made by officials and how much by Ministers. Ministers rely on officials for advice: how impartial was that advice? Civil servants themselves have opinions. Furthermore, the documentary evidence that survives tends to suggest that a good deal of policy was not made on paper, but in briefings, and that papers were presented with a particular predetermined slant or viewpoint (although there is nothing new in that!). Ultimately, it might be said that the correct decision was made, but that the evidence presented was misleading, and the motivations of the various participants were, to say the least, often concealed.