Concorde at fortyApr 15th, 2009 | By Ian Poulton | Category: Cross Channel
There was an optimism in being British in the late 1960s. The Empire might have gone; the pound might have dropped to an all time low; but there were still good things happening.
In popular culture: The Beatles ruled the world; Carnaby Street shaped fashion; and the football World Cup was still in English hands. Union flags would be seen everywhere, from being painted onto the roof of very cool Mini cars, to providing skirts for trendy girls. The grimness of the 1970s was still to come.
On the Wednesday after Easter in 1969 came a moment that was a high point for Britain and perhaps the beginning of the end.
We stood alongside the road outside of Filton aerodrome at Bristol to watch the event. The first British Concorde, 002, made its maiden flight. The blast from the engines was expected to be such that plastic sheeting was attached to the fencing at the end of the runway and policemen kept the crowds away from the area. We had seen television coverage of the first flight of the French Concorde (it was galling that it was 001!), but now we were going to see this technological wonder for ourselves.
Little remains in the memory of 9th April 1969, except a deafening noise and the sight of the plastic sheeting hanging in shreds from the perimeter fencing.
Concorde remained a matter of pride for a generation of schoolboys. In 1976, when Concorde began commercial service in the colours of British Airways, a busload of boy were taken from our school in Devon to watch the take off of a scheduled Concorde flight. We were told that this was the future, that time was money, and that this machine that could carry people across the Atlantic Ocean in three hours meant that we were at the very forefront of things.
Of course, we were not at the forefront of anything – we were bankrupt. The pound had fallen and fallen and, by September 1976, Britain was forced to seek a $3.9 billion dollar loan from the International Monetary Fund in order to keep going. Britain had been overtaken by history; its industries old and inefficient and its pretence at being a world power looking silly.
Concorde reflected the decline of the nation to which it meant so much. Elegant and sophisticated, it was simply overtaken in a world where satellite communications, the Internet and mobile phones meant there was no requirement for a businessman to even leave the comfort of his own armchair in order to do international business.
Cramped, noisy and horrendously expensive, it was ill equipped to compete in a market where those at the top end wanted spacious luxury and those at the bottom end were delighted with the arrival of the budget airlines. There was to be no niche for supersonic travel. The plane that came in with a boom went out with a whimper; a monument to something that might have been.
Standing on the roadside at Filton, forty years ago, there would have been a belief that Britain could still do great things.
Forty years on, watching Britain still trying to fight wars in far away places, while its own public services are crumbling; watching politics descend to the point where aides at Number Ten are reduced to attempting slur campaigns against Opposition politicians; watching an obsession with political correctness that affirms the identity of everyone, except the English; watching working people pay the price of high level financial and political ineptitude; there is a temptation to believe that nothing has been learned in forty years. Of all there might have been, little has been achieved.