Tony Benn tried to kill Concorde

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The Independent Online
HAROLD WILSON'S Labour government desperately tried to back out of the deal with France to build Concorde, the world's first and only supersonic airliner, formerly secret cabinet papers have revealed.

Publicly, the hi-tech Anglo-French project was hailed as a triumph of international co- operation. Privately, the Government wanted to ditch it, according to documents released last week under the 30-year rule, at the Public Records Office in Kew.

Dubbed "the plane of the future", the aircraft was supposed to harness "the white heat of the technological revolution" that Wilson promised the country in 1963. But by 1968, he and his ministers believed it was an enormously expensive folly which the UK, then suffering a sterling crisis, could ill-afford.

In September 1968, Tony Benn, then the Minister of Technology, met his French opposite number, Jean Chamant, with whom he was responsible for Concorde development. His secret aim was to "establish a strategy of withdrawal" from the project.

In a memorandum entitled "The Concorde Criteria: The Next Step" presented to the Cabinet after the meeting, Mr Benn made plain the extent of the looming financial disaster.

Mr Benn warned that despite the fanfare of publicity that greeted the prototype when it rolled out of a Toulouse hangar in December 1967, no airline company had committed itself to buying the plane.

Although beautiful to look at, Concorde was deafeningly noisy, and it needed huge quantities of fuel. Most worrying, there was no indication of the final price tag on a commercially viable Concorde. The Cabinet favoured immediate withdrawal from the project but that was deemed impossible. The UK was bound by the Concorde Treaty. If Britain abandoned the development, the International Court would have forced it to pay France expensive and embarrassing damages.

Instead, Mr Benn, while publicly championing Concorde, attempted to strike a deal with the French minister which would fully commit the UK to the project until the end of 1969 in return for a tacit agreement that if a ceiling of pounds 600m in development costs was exceeded Concorde could be terminated.

Mr Benn's secret memorandum to the Cabinet said members should accept the plan. "Unless we do so it will be impossible for me to work effectively with M. Chamant ... and this mutual ministerial distrust will reflect itself in all official contacts. A ministerial and inter-government deadlock cannot seriously be contemplated."

He proposed that the pretence of official enthusiasm for Concorde continue. "Only in this way can I discharge the Cabinet's decision that I should be seen to be working for the success of the project, a situation that must continue until it is cancelled, if that happens."

But political pressure to continue was impossible to resist, and Concorde became the greatest "white elephant" in aviation history. The first commercial flight finally came in 1976, after many expensive delays. Passengers paid pounds 431 return on the first UK-US flights. Today, top corporate executives, celebrities and lottery winners pay pounds 6,500 to be whisked to New York in three hours.

Concorde production ended with 14 sales, to Air France and British Airways. Billions of pounds of taxpayers' money had been wasted, written off by the government.