Despite not being Margaret Thatcher’s most ardent fan, the construction of the Euro Tunnel was a brilliant achievement, spearheaded by her Premiership. It was a physical symbol of our closer relationship with the continent, which had begun years earlier with the European Economic Community (EEC). This tunnel was a direct link with Europe, ending Britain’s historic physical isolation and antiquated fears of invasion. However, the history of the Channel Tunnel is far more complex then you may think; its history perhaps makes the Brexit result of 2016 not as unexpected as pollsters led us to believe. And the creation of this 50km tunnel did not necessarily achieve the ideological goals behind its creation.
The first attempt to build a tunnel between the UK and France was in fact in 1881. This was a grandiose idea, initially proposed by Albert Mathieu at the turn of the 19th Century in 1802. This design would have an artificial island half way across the Channel to enable ventilation. This island and tunnel would offer its users an unprecedented opportunity to physically see the political will of Britain and France become united thanks to a feat of civil engineering. Construction began in 1881: 1.8km of tunnel on the British side and 1.6km on the French side. However, a media smear campaign in Britain led to construction ceasing. The British press were under the impression that this tunnel would be a security threat to Britain. Thus, the concept of a Channel Tunnel is not a new one made possible by modern technology, but rather a project feasible since the early 1800s. It was political will which prevented it from happening, not civil engineering capabilities.
Above are two greats of British Prime Ministers, David Lloyd George and Winston Churchill. Both were advocates of the creation of a Channel Tunnel. Lloyd George vehemently advocated such a tunnel in the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, seeing it as an important symbol of Anglo-French unity in the wake of the terrors of the First World War. Similarly, Churchill used the exact nomenclature ‘Channel Tunnel’ twice in his writings, once in 1924 in The Weekly Dispatch, and again in 1936 in The Daily Mail. In both Mr Churchill was in staunch support of such a tunnel. Despite two political heavyweights weighing in on the idea of a Channel Tunnel in the first half of the 20th Century, the euroscepticism of the British people conquered.
The 1970s saw Britain enter the European Economic Community (EEC). This also followed an increased sense of integration and interconnectedness with our European companions. Logically, this change of perception in Britain led to yet another Channel Tunnel design being put-forward, this time in 1974. However, a change of government and a referendum on EEC membership reignited historical euroscepticism, and construction was, yet again, brought to an end.
Finally, after numerous attempts to create the Channel Tunnel, 1994 saw this century-old idea become a reality. Margaret Thatcher enabled this to happen, with construction beginning under her leadership in 1988. The Channel Tunnel has been in use ever since, with over 20 million passengers in 2016.
There has been a desire for over two centuries to build a tunnel under the Dover Straits. This desire has been there not only in order to create an engineering masterpiece, not only to promote business with faster commuter times, but also to bring Europe closer to Britain. This ideological notion of closeness frightens Britons, and the several foiled Channel Tunnel attempts aptly show this.
With such a strong history of being frightened of integration with Europe – it almost seems to be in our DNA – then perhaps we should not have been so certain of a vote to remain in 2016. The Euro Tunnel we now have has failed to change this most traditional of British opinions, that of euroscepticism. The 2016 referendum revealed this.
Our values and beliefs are deep-rooted and difficult to change. The media can tell us one thing, they can tell us that a referendum or an election is only going one way, but let the Channel Tunnel story teach you a lesson. The media and politicians suggested that the Channel Tunnel would pull us ever-closer to Europe, continue integration for years to come. They were wrong. They underestimated Britons’ strong beliefs.
Similarly, the media barons say that Corbyn’s 2017 election campaign is futile, as Theresa May’s Conservative Party will win a commanding majority. The British people proved the establishment wrong in 2016 and were not fooled by the intentions of the Channel Tunnel twenty years before, I urge you to prove them wrong again on June 8th 2017.