1960s >> 1967 >> no-757-september-1967

The Review Column: Sonic Booms

Let no one deceive themselves that the sonic booms over various parts of the country last July were inflicted as part of a test of people’s reactions.

Firstly, it soon became clear that Wedgewood Benn’s Ministry of Technology had not bothered to set up any machinery to gauge reactions to the booms, secondly the booms were nothing like what can be expected if supersonic airliners are allowed to fly overland.

If the development of other types of aircraft is any guide, the operators of the supersonic planes will want to fly them all day and all night, everyday and every night. The prospect which this conjures up is nothing like the single isolated crack of a small jet fighter in the middle of a summer afternoon, described by Wedgewood Benn as “. . . at an intensity well below that of supersonic airliners”.

Of course the booms provoked a lot of protest, but Wedgewood Benn, under fire in the Commons, had the answer to them all: ‘Substantial sums are being put by this country into advanced aircraft, the financial success of which will in part depend on whether the aircraft fly from other people’s territory.’

The Concord, then, is no more than a typical product of capitalism. A lot of money invested in it; side effects unpleasant, probably dangerous; competition the driving force behind its production; no profit incentive to solve the problem of its effects.

In this situation, the comfort and safety of people on the ground are only a secondary consideration. There is reason to believe that the booms last July were not tests of our reactions, but the first step in getting us accustomed to the idea of them, in preparation for the days when they are banging off in earnest.

And this, let us remember, is what capitalism calls progress.

The Aberfan Tribunal promised that there would be no whitewashing. They produced a report full of memorable phrases (“bungling ineptitude”; “subterfuge and arrogance by the National Coal Board”; “eight years of folly and neglect”) and they laid the blame for the disaster, on the National Coal Board, its headquarters, its divisional board, and four of its officials.

In this, the tribunal followed the accepted pattern of all enquiries into disasters. Somewhere, somebody—a railway signalman, an airline pilot, a ship’s captain—makes a mistake or breaks a rule. It is all too easy, afterwards, to point the finger.

Very few people care to wonder about the context in which the ‘mistakes’ are made, the rules ‘broken’.

Only in passing, for example, did the Aberfan tribunal deal with the basic cause of the disaster, which was the very existence of the slag heaps, up on the mountain above the doomed village.

Tipping waste from coal mines is, after all, the simplest and cheapest way of disposing of it. In South Wales, the valleys cannot be used for the tips because that is where the pit heads and the houses must be built. So that the stuff is dumped onto the mountains, where it is a continual eyesore and menace.

Of course they could stop tipping but, as the tribunal said on this very point “. . . the reflection that to stop tipping could bring about the closure of the Merthyr Vale Colliery may well have led to the quick suppression of those doubts . . .”

Of course they could deposit the stuff underground but this, said the tribunal, was neither “technically feasible now nor economically practicable” (The Times estimated the cost of removing tip complex alone at £3 million).

Thus the tribunal accepted the economic confine within which capitalism’s industry operates. It accepted that anything which is not economically practicable must be rejected, it accepted that people must live in the constant need to work for their living. It accepted that, although a certain amount must be done to mitigate the hardships of this social set-up, in the end we must make the best of it.


The economic practicabilities of capitalism have a lot to answer for, in coal mining more than in most other industries. Aberfan was only the latest, if one of the most unusual, of the disasters caused by the ‘economic’ production of coal.


Lord Robens (as the Daily Telegraph of 7th August was unkind enough to recall) once said that the Labour Government in 1950 “washed the blood off the coal” which was normally on it when the Tories were in power.


After Aberfan it may be convenient to blame individual workers, employees of the National Coal Board. The true culprit is capitalist society—and there is still, after all, blood on the coal.


Sandys’ Racialism
One of the first to exploit the irrational fears the Detroit riots created was Tory former Minister Duncan Sandys. In a statement he called for a stop to all entry into Britain of what he called coloured people and added, for good measure, “including relatives of those who are here’’. We don’t know if Sandys has prepared a series of amendments to the Commonwealth Immigrants Acts which will provide immigration officials with a precise standard for judging who are to be considered coloured and who not. We doubt it. For Sandys seems just to be concerned with encouraging hostility between people with lighter and people with darker skin pigmentation.


Perhaps the most revolting part of Sandys statement read:


  The breeding of millions of half-caste children would merely produce a generation of misfits and create increased tensions.


The words breeding, half-caste and misfits seem to have been carefully chosen—with a view to stirring up hostility to so-called mixed marriages and their offspring. What precisely does Sandys mean by misfit? He may be subscribing to the old racialist myth that what they call race-mixing leads to physical and moral degeneration. Or he may just mean that such children will be subject to prejudice. Or perhaps he deliberately meant to be ambiguous; to suggest one thing while having a let-out if challenged. If he means that these children would be the victims of prejudice, we can only assume from the fact that his words encourage such prejudice that he thinks it a good thing; that he favours a virtual caste system under which the so-called whites are on top and the so-called blacks at the bottom. We can only suggest that as a former director of Ashanti Goldfields and other goldmining companies in Ghana he should be careful about biting the hands that have fed him for years. He should also be careful about talking of sending people back. Somebody might take his fancy French name as a reason to send him to Normandy.