This article is from the March issue of Total Politics. Find other columns in Nik's series on the parliamentary debates that made history here
Many people know that the Channel Tunnel opened in 1994. Not many people know that preliminary work began as early as the 1870s and 1880s. These early projects, conducted by Anglo–French consortia, hit the buffers because of British government fears for national security, discussed during a debate on the ill-fated Channel Tunnel (Experimental Works) Bill in June 1888. Though the technology existed to do it, such fears delayed construction for 100 years. How might the summer of 1940 have unfolded if they hadn’t?
This private bill was endorsed by Sir Edward Watkin (Liberal, Hythe), a railway enthusiast and tycoon with links to the tunnel’s Anglo–French prospectors. He was a man ahead of his time, with dreams for a high-speed rail network linking the European continent to the northern cities of England.
A channel tunnel was, said Watkin, “one of the most important questions that could be discussed in the industrial and commercial interests of the country”. The anti-Corn Laws campaigner Richard Cobden, he said, had spoken of it as a way to foster peace between Britain and France.
He was supported by William Gladstone (Liberal, Midlothian), who, as prime minister, had rejected the tunnel only a few years before. Opposing arguments were “mere and sheer bugbears”, while the “commercial advantages would be enormous”. Yet the generals were not convinced. Lt-General Sir Edward Hamley (Conservative, Birkenhead), in a speech dripping with sarcasm, commended Watkin for “the quality of not knowing when he was beaten” (similar bills were defeated in 1884 and 1885). This “highway to the Millennium”, he said mockingly, was “vainglorious and dangerous”.
Sir Michael Hicks-Beach (Conservative, Bristol West), president of the Board of Trade, opposed the bill “completely”, and rebuked Watkin for misrepresenting the views of others. “It is simply folly and madness”, he said, entirely to reject future Anglo–French conflict, while a tunnel “would open a door for attack which does not now exist”.
John Slagg (Liberal, Burnley), a director of the Suez Canal and Richard Cobden’s godson, berated ministers for their “timid and unworthy state of mind”, frightened by old wives’ tales. Sir Henry Tyler (Conservative, Great Yarmouth), a railway director, concurred: “The questions of flooding, blocking and defending the tunnel were very simple.”
Lord Randolph Churchill (Conservative, South Paddington), father of a famous son, complained about the “scanty attendance on the benches on both sides” for such an important debate. The former chancellor dismissed Gladstone’s conversion as just “party polemics”, and ridiculed notions of pressing buttons to block or destroy the Tunnel in the event of an invasion. Great Britain was, Churchill declared, virgo intacta. Untouched and unpenetrated: “I say it is essentially a good position.” So might you, Lord Randolph, so might you.