19 June 2019

Stonehenge’s tunnel and a battle for the soul of conservatism

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At some point in the not too distant future the government is going to have to make a decision on whether to save or destroy Stonehenge. You might think this both a dramatic question and an easy one but, as ever in politics, it is more complicated than that. At issue is whether the government will press ahead with plans for a tunnel that will run alongside Stonehenge and risk doing unknown damage to the archeological and historical integrity of one of Britain’s most significant ancient sites.

All the indications are that the Department for Transport, still headed by Chris Grayling, will press ahead. Roads, not history, is what matters. If so, this is remarkable even if it may not be altogether surprising.

It must be allowed that the current situation is non-ideal. The presence of the A303 just a couple of hundred yards from Stonehenge compromises the tranquility that would, in a better-ordered world, be an integral part of the Stonehenge experience. That the road is also a notorious bottle neck is another, if lesser, problem.

So proposals for a tunnel that would restore peace to Stonehenge while easing the frustration endured by drivers and their passengers make sense. The problem is that the proposed tunnel is both too expensive and not nearly expensive enough.

According to the National Audit Office, the proposed works deliver just £.15 of economic benefit for every £1 spent on the project. That does not take into account likely cost overruns which would hobble the economic argument for the tunnel. The project “is currently only just value for money by the department’s own business case”, Amyas Morse, the Auditor General, said earlier this year. By the time it is actually built – construction is due to begin in 2021 and last as long as five years – the economic case upon which the tunnel is predicated will be out of date.

Number-crunchers can put a figure on both the cost of the tunnel and its supposed economic advantages but some things are harder to measure than that. Stonehenge is plausibly Britain’s most significant stone-age site; a place of wonder and awe and mystery. Preserving that for future generations and, indeed, enhancing the site ought to be understood as a moral, as well as a historical, obligation.

Here we discover that the problem with the Department for Transport’s plans is that they are not ambitious or expensive enough. The planned 1.8 mile tunnel risks ruining as yet unexplored and unexcavated archaeological sites around Stonehenge that may one day reveal new, and significant, information about one of the wonders of ancient Britain. Proceeding with a tunnel of this kind, on this site, risks being an act of wanton, even unconscionable, vandalism.

A longer tunnel or one routed differently might avoid at least some of this destruction. According to documents submitted to the UNESCO World Heritage Committee by the Department of Culture Media and Sport, however, “The additional construction cost is estimated at £540m and the longer tunnel would also require considerable additional annual maintenance expenditure”. This, the government feels, “cannot be justified” not least since the scheme “is already pushing at the limits of what can be regarded as overall public value for money”.

In other words, the cheaper option must be the only option available even if, in terms of archaeology, history, and environmental sensitivity it is the more expensive choice. Instead the tunnel’s western entrance will, on current plans, be inside the Stonehenge World Heritage Site. This is both astonishing and profoundly unconservative.

Of course trade-offs can never be avoided. They are the heart of government. Equally, solving one problem – in this instance the presence of a congested road two hundred yards from one of Britain’s most important sites – merely gives birth to another: the potential destruction of internationally-significant archeological remains. One of these things is more easily priced than the other.

But if the Conservative Party cannot be trusted to maintain the United Kingdom’s heritage then who can and, indeed, what is the Conservative Party for? In this respect the battle for Stonehenge is merely one illustration, or illumination, of a tension that cuts deep into the bones of modern Conservatism.

You might think that a conservative political party would also be the party most keenly invested in environmentalism. But you would be mistaken. Although Michael Gove has brought a new energy and, perhaps, credibility to the Tory party’s environmental record it remains paradoxical that, as a group, the Tories remain the party most likely to be sceptical of climate change and most resistant to any attempt to do anything about it. Huskies are not for hugging.

And yet the protection – which is not quite the same thing as the preservation – of the environment ought to be a Tory strength, not a weakness. A Tory party that is not deeply invested in a deep sense of place, of local platoons and local serenity, is a Tory party that’s capable of appreciating the price of everything but the value of much less.

That imposes no requirement to follow the Green party’s anti-capitalist agenda. Economic growth is a necessity, not a luxury, and the Greens’ hostility to growth is a programme for national impoverishment. If we are to have the public services we need – especially in areas such as health and social care – economic growth, as well as increased productivity and innovation, is the only means of achieving those goals. As ever, it is a question of balance.

But that also means that things will have to change if they are to remain the same. That, in essence, ought to be the guiding spirit of Toryism. This is not just a matter for rural life or the preservation of ancient monuments either; it means doing more to improve air quality in cities and increased investment in lower-carbon public transport infrastructure.

Some of these schemes, including most obviously high-speed rail, will be expensive. Sometimes even eye-waveringly so. But they exist in a realm that’s greater than the numbers to be crunched in an exhaustive economic cost-benefit analysis. They speak to something more profound, perhaps even something more ancient, than that. They speak to a certain idea of the Conservative soul. There is a measure of poetry here, albeit one easily lost amidst the prosaic business of government.

That, in the end, is the real lesson and the true importance of this battle for Stonehenge. It is one that must be fought with weapons somewhat greater than a calculator. A Tory party that was truly a Tory party would recognise that history and the preservation – indeed improvement – of the environment are its allies, not a threat. Each is too significant to be left to the left, but that requires a Conservative Party that is ready and willing to conserve.

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Alex Massie is a political commentator