Reality caught up with it
Concorde ... the end of an era in aviation.
"ARRIVE before you set out". The intriguing message caught my eye a week ago as I drove away from London's Heathrow Airport after returning from a short visit to Spain. It was, of course, an advertisement for Concorde, the high prestige Anglo-French supersonic aircraft that has been a jewel in the crowns of British Airways and Air France since 1986.
A few days later, BA announced that Concorde would fly for the last time in October. Air France, too, is retiring its Concorde fleet. Rising maintenance costs, and the increasing reluctance of business people to pay the high fare, are blamed.
BA's decision is commercial. The airline industry has been under great pressure for many months, pressure that has been increased as a result of the war in Iraq. Airlines are concerned with financial survival and cannot afford the luxury of basing what they provide on national prestige. In a sense, therefore, the decision to withdraw the Concorde fleet from service was inevitable rather than remarkable.
It could nevertheless be seen, not too fancifully, as a kind of omen of more fundamental change in Britain's international position. The announcement of BA's decision came in the week of the annual budget speech by the Chancellor of the Exchequer. In a normal year the budget is the main news of the day - but not this year. The (as it happens rather dull) measures announced by Gordon Brown made the front pages of the newspapers, but only just. Iraq, and specifically the final toppling of Saddam Hussein, was the big news of the day.
One of the points in the budget speech concerned the question of the United Kingdom's entry to the Euro zone. The Government, we learnt, plans to publish in June the Treasury's assessment of the famous five economic tests upon which the decision whether - and when - to hold a referendum on the matter will be taken. It is clearly an important issue, affecting the role of the U.K. in the European Union, but that statement too attracted little attention.
That may be simply a reflection of the mixture of apathy and xenophobic hostility (depending on their position in the political spectrum) with which most of the British public view the E.U. It may also, I feel, reflect the growing public recognition that through its involvement with the United States in the attack on Iraq the U.K. has severely damaged, if not actually burned, its European bridges.
It is on that reading of the situation that the Concorde decision stands as an omen; it marks the end of a long established cooperative venture between Britain and France, and at a time when, on Iraq, Britain and France have been poles apart.
Of course it would be wrong to read too much into that. The decision, as I have emphasised, was commercial. Yet there can be no doubt that, in the aftermath of the Iraq war, the international scene will be very different from what it was six months ago. It is not at all clear where the U.K. will stand in it. This is partly a matter of how the U.K.'s relationship with the United States will develop, and whatever view one takes of that, there is no doubt at all that the relationship will be one in which the British are very much the junior partners.
Given the current hostility of the Bush administration to "old Europe", as represented by France and Germany, it will be a difficult job to bring U.S.- E.U. relations back to anything like the old normality, and the U.K. is not in a strong position to be a catalyst in that process.
Developments within the European Union, and development of the relationship between the E.U. and the United States seem quite likely to relegate Britain to a position on the sidelines.
These developments will certainly be greatly affected by what happens in the next few months in West Asia, and that, clearly is not just a question of the future of Iraq in the aftermath of the appalling damage which it has suffered. It seems inevitable that relationships within the region, and between the countries of the region and the rest of the world will for a long time be unstable.
There is manifestly a great need for acceptable honest brokers to help in the process of achieving stability. Sadly, there is also manifestly a dearth of suitable candidates for that role with sufficient influence to affect the approach of the United States.
The writer is an Emeritus Fellow of Wolfson College, Cambridge, U.K. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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