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EDITIONS
UK Confidential Tuesday, 1 January, 2002, 00:45 GMT
Whitehall's early Concorde doubts
Concorde takes off
Concorde consumes 5,638 gallons of fuel every hour.
By the BBC's Chris West

The future of Concorde, the supersonic symbol of European co-operation and development, was being called into serious doubt at the highest UK government level, even as the first proving flights were being made, according to newly available official documents.

One senior Whitehall mandarin went on record to dismiss the revolutionary Anglo-French aircraft venture as "a commercial disaster which should never have been started".

Nevertheless, the British government continued to give the project its backing, fearing to offend the enthusiastic French and jeopardise entry into the Common Market.

Cabinet minutes disclosed under the 30-year rule reveal a growing unease and even downright hostility on the part of some British government ministers and their advisors.

"Serious blow"

A March 1971 memorandum to the Cabinet from the Minister of Aviation Supply asserts that: "There remains no case for proceeding with Concorde on economic grounds."

The document warns, however, that cancellation would not only deal a "serious blow" to Britain's aircraft industry, but that it could also have a "most damaging effect" on negotiations to enter Europe.

The French President Pompidou
The French President Pompidou
Little appears to have been done to impress such reservations on France, where Concorde had the enthusiastic and unequivocal backing of President Pompidou.

The British Prime Minister, Edward Heath, shared his French counterpart's enthusiasm, and his overwhelming desire was that nothing should stand in the way of Britain's entry into Europe.

Sceptics

The two leaders met in Paris in May 1971. A Trade Department briefing written for the Prime Minister suggests mildly: "The Prime Minister will wish to point out that a number of uncertainties still exist."

He may well have done, but in an interview for UK Confidential, Sir Edward reveals that he and Monsieur Pompidou emerged from an extended meeting at the British embassy to declare their agreement on "everything," something he admits left the sceptics "absolutely flabbergasted".

Arguments against a withdrawal from Concorde according to a 1971 Cabinet memorandum
Harm Anglo-French relations
Endanger British entry into Common Market
Destroy 26,000 jobs
An emotional blow to the United Kingdom
In the end, the sceptics lost the argument. A Cabinet memorandum of November 1971 from the Head of the Central Policy Review Staff, states bluntly that Concorde is a "commercial disaster" likely to cost the UK some 900 million.

It adds, however, that there are three arguments against withdrawal, which it "reluctantly" regards as conclusive: It would harm Anglo-French relations, and could imperil the impending British entry into the Common Market; it would destroy 26,000 jobs; and given that the public believed Concorde to be "a spectacular technological success", cancellation would be "a severe, almost emotional blow" to the average man and woman in the United Kingdom.

With those words, Whitehall - albeit grudgingly - embraced the supersonic future.

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