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This talk makes a claim for a new account of political change in post-war Britain: rather than a ‘neo-liberalism’ from without, it argues for an economic liberalism from within. This paper writes into history the Whitehall opposition, and particularly the Treasury criticism, to the great techno-nationalist programmes of the post-war age: the investments in supersonic aviation and nuclear power. These long running programmes were supposed to deliver export glory and industrial leadership but they were spectacular commercial blunders. Indeed, their failure helped to usher in a transformation in the political economy of the British state. During the 1970s, it became accepted that Britain would no longer aim to leapfrog the United States to technological domination. State engineers, once so dominant, were removed from positions of influence in the policymaking machinery and there was a new consensus that industry, not bureaucrats, should lead government-funded R&D projects. In other words, the liberal critique of the Treasury, maligned in the 1950s, won out in the 1970s. With the propaganda and politics of the time still defining much of the existing historiography, this transformative retreat from ‘high technology’ has barely been understood. All of this has wider ramifications for post-war Britain political history, especially highlighting the great divorce between public and state politics, and helping to underline how much more research we need on how government decision-making worked in practice.


All welcome- this seminar is free to attend, but booking is required.