The debate over High Speed Two goes right to the heart of the quandary the UK finds herself in 13 years in to the new millennium.
The project is of far greater significance than stopwatch psychology or getting a seat on the 7.24 from Leighton Buzzard might imply. HS2 needs to be seen in its wider historical context for its value to be appreciated.
The main significance of the headline event in British foreign affairs this summer passed almost unnoticed by the wider public. In August parliament voted against military intervention in Syria.
Most people chuckled at David Cameron’s embarrassment. The PM may have regretted recalling his fellow parliamentarians to debate intervention but in the long run he knew he had to carry the country with him. The message from post-Olympian Brits was plain enough – keep out of foreign entanglements.
Historically the Syrian Vote will be seen as a turning point. The parliamentary defeat for Cameron marked the departure of the British from the centre stage of world affairs.
In keeping with public opinion the UK plans to draw down its role in Afghanistan. Troop numbers overall are being reduced by 20% as a result of the recession. Expensive and inconclusive foreign adventures look increasingly unlikely.
Closer to home the continuing Euro crisis makes a referendum on withdrawal from the European Union after the next election all but inevitable. A consequent vote to leave the EU will further confirm British insularity.
Britain’s growing isolation makes it doubly imperative to increase commerce and industry. The UK cannot survive as a two tone backwater loitering up country from London’s prosperous city state.
Conversely for the midas-metropolis to survive, London needs better connections with the rest of the country. Good communications have always been key to Britain’s success.
The invading Romans built a network of High Speed military highways to Dover, York and Chester – and Exeter. Even today trains on HS1 are named for the legionnaires’ favoured weapon of despatch – the javelin.
If the idea was to speed the legions on their way the effect was to open up the ingenuity of the greatest trading nation ever known. Tongue in cheek though that might appear it is the creation of reliable communication links that sped the British on their way.
Maritime supremacy might have started as a race against Dutch hegemony – cross channel links were as controversial then as they are now – but it led to the creation of a navy capable of protecting trading ships globally.
World trade and an expanding empire stimulated the Industrial Revolution. This really came of age with the arrival of the railway. Lines were put down almost every where.
Good communications are an important element for any functioning, successful state. For a country determined to strengthen its economy after disappointment abroad, they are essential.
With Britain’s motorway network and radial railways so often clogged to suffocation, high speed rail will cut a welcome swathe through the under brush of congestion with all the panache of a Roman legion hacking north up Ermine Street.
The immediate economic effect of the new high speed rail network will be to free up capacity for more freight trains linking Felixstowe, London and Southampton with Birmingham, Manchester and the great industrial heartlands of the north and Scotland. HS2 will be the catalyst for new business.
If foreign affairs dictate the new imperatives of a stronger economy domestic dynamics are no less urgent.
The effect of the London commercial phenomena is to create a feverish city state overheating in its congested tarmac ringed basin. For London to grow and command the strategic heights of an emerging e-barrier- free world economy it needs to be better connected to the under- cultivated hinterlands from which it draws its strength. Best of all it will further profit by oxygenating its energies the length and breadth of the land.
For the last 30 years successive governments of both complexions have tried hand wringing social engineering schemes designed to narrow the gap between the north and south.
High speed rail does not so much cry ‘mind the gap’ as close it altogether. The effect of high speed rail links in other countries is to unite provincial cities with capitals in quickening waltz of wealth creation.
The net effect of HS2 will be to make Britain a stronger, better proposition in commerce and economics. However the last point concerns a coy national psychology.
Last year Britain came third in the medal tally at the London Olympics. Perhaps an even more dramatic achievement was the success of the Paralympics Games and the effect it had on the prospects of the people it emancipated.
The UK carried this off with confidence and humour. It provided a lesson to the rest of the world that everyone is worth more than they think and that the dignity of the individual is our abiding moral value.
What other head of state could get away with apparently parachuting into the arena with James Bond? You don’t stop being cool in your 80s in Great Britain, that’s for sure.
The UK will continue to be a winner and an exemplar if we, the people, believe it can be. The Olympics were a testament of confidence. Seen in this light HS2 is not a whimsical idea of a minute saved here and there but the continuing hard concrete and steel foundation of future success.
If we shy away from high speed rail we turn our back collectively on a future that beckons brighter, peaceful and more successful than the past. The great days for the British lie not in our history books but beyond the yet unmilled ribbons of rail leading to a future of prosperity, equality and peace.
Back High Speed Two. Do something positive for your country’s future. Argue for it on social media and in the press and on radio phone-ins – fight with growing confidence on the air.
Write to your MP. Shout about it for it is in all our interests that it is built and used by future generations to whom we owe a duty of care and vision.