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UK science policy falls short of superpower talk—thankfully


Past failures show that government is wise to accept geopolitical reality, says Tom Kelsey

In the immediate post-war period, being a science and technology superpower was central to the UK’s politics. By taking on the United States in the key technologies of tomorrow—aviation and atomic energy—the government hoped to restore the nation’s industrial and economic predominance. 

The fate of this techno-nationalist programme offers a note of caution to the techno-optimism and economic nationalism of the UK’s current policy debate. It also underlines the relative modesty, indeed realism, of what recent governments have been doing. 

In the mid-to-late ’50s, the Conservative government sponsored both the world’s first commercial jet airliner and the Anglo-French Concorde, the only supersonic jet to enter commercial service. It was also an extraordinarily early adopter of nuclear power, with a colossal building programme of first-generation reactors. Until 1970, Britain was generating more atomic energy in absolute terms than any other country

This faith in state-led national inventive genius extended to military as well as civil programmes. One example of many is the TSR-2 military jet, which was the most advanced aircraft being developed until it was scrapped in 1964. 

Investing in such technologies was intended to bolster economic prosperity, national security and geopolitical power. Like today, there was a sense that whatever country had the advantage in defining technologies would control global affairs.

The great competitor

Back then, the great competitor was the United States. When Harold Wilson’s Labour government tried to scrap Concorde soon after coming to power in 1964, Julian Amery, the outgoing secretary of state for aviation, defended the project as an assertion of British, and indeed European, technological power: “In every sector of advanced technology—in engineering, in electronics, in computers, in nuclear energy, in shipping, in airlines and above all in civil and military aviation—the Americans are pushing their wares by every possible means.” 

Yet, in reality, Britain’s techno-nationalist dreams undermined its economy, security and global standing. The supersonic future never came to pass: Concorde sold only to the nationalised airlines of the countries that made it, below cost and with much political pressure. Only two British-designed nuclear reactors were ever built abroad, as the world chose American technology instead. In sum, a generation of scientists and engineers spent decades of their lives on projects that either did not sell or were scrapped before reaching production. 

Within government, there was internal opposition to key programmes from the beginning. But it only cut through in the 1970s, when after decades of failure, Whitehall itself would radically curtail Britain’s technological ambitions. The British state was adopting an economic liberalism that transformed politics before Margaret Thatcher became prime minister. 

Speeches from current Conservative politicians suggest that today’s government is aping its 1950s predecessor. There have been claims about Britain leading the fourth industrial revolution, like it did the first.

The idea of the UK becoming a science and technology superpower has been a rare constant in a wider industrial strategy marked by inconsistency. Yet the policy details show more understanding of Britain’s actual place in the technological world than the rhetoric would suggest. 

The 2023 Semiconductor Strategy, for example, was not really about reshoring production but giving relatively small amounts of research money in areas of UK strengths, and ensuring strong relationships with key suppliers such as South Korea and Japan. And while government funding for artificial intelligence has risen, there is no attempt to surpass the US. Instead, the prime minister’s flagship policy was the AI Safety Summit, where it was obvious Britain appreciated the need to bring together allies, international business and China to ensure the responsible use of frontier AI. In general, funding for research and development in the UK has increased markedly in recent years, but it is still lower than Germany as a proportion of GDP. 

Thankfully, the return to the age of Concorde is largely rhetorical. Britain was in an awkward position after the Second World War, easily the scientific and industrial leader of Western Europe but faced with a newly ascendant superpower—the United States. The UK’s ambitious bets on emerging technology made some sense, but in retrospect their failure was inevitable.

Today, Britain is far weaker in industrial terms and faces multiple superpowers, including China and the EU. A full-blooded return to the techno-nationalist age would be unwise. 

Tom Kelsey is the humanities and public policy officer at the University of Oxford and a visiting fellow in the History Department at King’s College London

This article also appeared in Research Fortnight and a version appeared in Research Europe