When Labour came to power with a slim majority in October 1964 they inherited an economy teetering on the edge following years of boom and bust cycles, a struggling currency and a vast balance of trade deficit. In immediately refusing to devalue sterling, the Wilson government was left with only a few economic levers to pull in order to steady the ship.
One such lever was to follow up on the pre-election pledge of moving away from costly defence and vanity projects and move the highly skilled workforce involved in research and development into commercial civil sectors. The Royal Air Force had five ongoing procurement programmes at the time of the general election; The BAC TSR.2 multi-role strike fighter, Hawker Siddeley P.1154 supersonic vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) fighter, Hawker Siddeley P.1127 (Harrier) small single seat VTOL fighter, Hawker Siddeley HS.681 four-engined transport aircraft, and the competition for the replacement of the Avro Shackleton MR1 & 2 maritime patrol aircraft, for which the Hawker Siddeley HS.801 (Nimrod) was the leading contender.
Of these five, only the Harrier (which represented world-leading technological advancement and exportable benefits) and the Nimrod (a cobbled together assortment of existing technology in an old and unwanted civil airliner airframe) were signed off to continue into production. The other three programmes were controversially scrapped and comparatively low cost American offerings took their places in the military inventory.
For the Harrier programme there was no suitable overseas replacement, and the project represented one of the few remaining areas of aviation where Britain still held an advantage over the rest of the world, so cancelling it would have been counterproductive. The Nimrod programme however, stood alone as an apparently counter intuitive procurement in a time of swinging cuts to the British military aviation industry. The donor Comet airframe was old and of no value to the advancement of British civil aircraft design, and although the costs were reasonable, they were similar to both the French and American aircraft that were offered, and which represented a more sustainable future through international partnership.
These RAF procurements are largely ignored by economic historians of the period, who focus on the unsuccessful attempts by the Government to tackle the deficit, along with Labour’s ideological approach to the economy after thirteen years in opposition. Those aircraft programmes that were cancelled, particularly the TSR.2, are often researched and viewed as a missed opportunity for the British aviation industry to retake a leading position in the world. The Nimrod programme has not been examined, yet it provides a fascinating insight into the political, economic and military decision making of the period, for here was a procurement that ran counter to all the accepted concepts and decisions of the Wilson Government and the need to transform the British economy.