Perhaps no sector reveals the 'reluctant European' streak in British policy-making better than aerospace. Until eclipsed by France in 1991, the United Kingdom boasted the second largest aerospace industry in the OECD, measured in turnover. Moreover, the technical prowess of the industry is the equal of the United States. British industry can claim several firsts in aircraft technology, including the development of the first jet engine, all-metal airframe, and the first jet-powered airliner. Hawker-Siddeley was widely regarded as the European leader in wing design and manufacture and this realisation led to the firm's retention as a subcontractor to Airbus even after the British government pulled out of the consortium in 1970. For all its commercial travails, Rolls-Royce has a sterling reputation for advanced engine designs and it is the only European engine company that is competitive with the US giants, Pratt & Whitney and General Electric, across a range of military and civil products. The problem for successive British governments was to craft policies to enhance the competitive position of the industry and safeguard aircraft jobs for highly skilled personnel. Whether this was best achieved via European efforts was always controversial.
Subcontracting jobs for Boeing or Aircraft Manufacturing jobs?
British aerospace policy, however, was very confused during the 1970s. Part of the problem was that the principal firms of the time, Rolls-Royce and Hawker-Siddeley (later folded into British Aerospace), had divergent views about cooperative arrangements with Europe. Rolls-Royce wanted access to the American manufacturers in order to level its playing field with its engine rivals General Electric and Pratt & Whitney. This desire led to Rolls' feverish pursuit of the engine contract for the Lockheed L-1011 in 1968. The Labour government agreed to provide launch aid for the engine. As it was, Rolls was far too ambitious, both in its belief that development problems would be minimal and that early delivery dates could be achieved. The advanced technology engine, the RB-211, was plagued by technical problems and delivery dates slipped. The contract with Lockheed bankrupted Rolls in 1971.
Airbus Industrie courted BAe for its expertise in wing manufacture. Boeing courted them for the Boeing 757 subcontracting. The UK Department of Trade favoured Boeing, the Foreign Office favoured rejoining the Airbus consortium. A government has to consider (more widely) aerospace jobs in the longer term, maintenance jobs and support. The latter, rejoining Airbus, happened in 1978.