Desmond King-Hele: the destruction of the Royal Aircraft Establishment

Desmond King-Hele describes the effect on the RAE of Margaret Thatcher's Government in the 1980s.

It was amazing that she came in in 1979, and by 1980 she must have given instructions that – I mean it was always said that she asked some civil servant, ‘The RAE, the Royal Aircraft Establishment, how much money does that make?’ And he said, ‘Oh well it doesn’t make money, it’s scientific research,’ you know. And so it’s said, in this story, that she said, ‘Oh well, we’ll have to gradually wipe that out. We want people who make money.’ And certainly from 1980, I remember the year, we got a new head of department in 1980, and he was completely Thatcherian. And I remember the first thing he said when he addressed the department was that, ‘No one owes us a living.’ What happened was very sad really, that each of the scientific specialities in turn was destroyed in the RAE by all sorts of methods. The chief one was offering early retirement on very good terms. Having done that, they combined two departments together. And one of the techniques of destroying the place was to change its name. The RAE had this terrific historical background. It started off as a balloon factory in the 1860s or something, and so there was a terrific local loyalty if you like to the RAE. And then they changed it to that, which wasn’t much, Royal Aerospace Establishment, you see. And then the next thing of course that she did was to gradually remove all the ‘Royals’. It was changed to the Defence Research Establishment Air or something, got rid of the ‘Royal’ that was the main thing, once the ‘Royal’ was got rid of. Then they changed it – it was gradually being privatised all the time, and they changed it to another name which I can’t remember, and eventually it became the privatised QinetiQ Company, with very few scientists left in it. How did she get rid of it finally? Oh yes, of course. It was kept going obviously by pouring Ministry of Defence money, and then eventually they began to crack down on that. And so it has become just a company, a privatised company, which is what she wanted. One of the ways of destroying it was that they built a new building the other side of the airfield and they chucked everyone into that. And they then started destroying the RAE, building by building. I remember they built an enormous admin building, about 1960, ’70, ’65, ’70, and they started knocking it down curiously enough on the day before the September the – September the whatever it is 2001, the thing in America where they – and it was really very odd because I went past it a day or two afterwards and it was a complete mass of rubble just like the Twin Towers, I think – but it done not by terrorists but by Thatcherites [laughs]. I mean it was a consequence of it, I mean it was bound to be knocked down some time, but it was just ironic really. But the building I worked in is still there and so are two or three others, because they got an RAE Museum Society going and they tried to save us what they could. And the big wind tunnel is still there and I don’t think there are any other buildings that are still there. It was amazing the amount they knocked down. It’s like a city of the dead now, when you go there.

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