Darran Anderson is the author of Imaginary Cities (University of Chicago Press) and the forthcoming Tidewrack (Farrar, Straus and Giroux).
Boris Johnson’s recent proposal to build a span between the U.K. and France recalls a long history of ambitious construction fantasies with uninspiring origins.
Faced with pressing social and economic concerns, proponents of the United Kingdom’s separation from the European Union have taken solace in “magical thinking,” in the words of E.U. negotiators in Brussels. Britain’s Brexit-supporting Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson has gone as far as to suggest it would be only slightly more inconvenient than the London congestion charge, comparing it to crossing from Camden to Islington, and ignoring the Ireland border’s heavily contentious presence at the heart of a conflict which cost thousands of lives and impacted countless more. The infamous Vote Leave campaign claim, “We send the E.U. £350 million a week: let's fund our NHS instead” was eventually passed off as sales puff after the Brexit vote turned out in their favor. One former Tory minister, the Remain-supporting Anna Soubry, deemed such Brexit advocates as “ideologically driven unicorn-chasers.”
Delusions are often encouraged rather than cured by impending doom. And the tendency for otherwise conservative figures to suddenly believe in grand, expensive, almost utopian schemes has made its way into infrastructure. Why it has done so is more revealing than the details of the plans themselves.
After a recent U.K. summit with the French government, Boris Johnson raised the possibility of a bridge being built between the two countries. Whether this were road or rail, it would need to cross 22 miles of the English Channel. Around the same time, another Brexit-supporting MP, Sammy Wilson of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), proposed the construction of a sea bridge across a similar distance linking Northern Ireland to Scotland.
While technically surmountable, the obstacles facing both ideas are immense. A Channel Bridge across the Dover Strait would obstruct the world’s busiest shipping lane. An Irish Sea bridge might have to contend with Beaufort’s Dyke, where over a million tons of unstable munitions were dumped after World War II. Bridges in excess of these distances have been constructed; the longest in the world, the Danyang–Kunshan Grand Bridge in China, is over 100 miles. These have been primarily across land however and are linked to systems of railway infrastructure which make the UK’s look outdated by comparison. It is one thing to zip across rivers, lakes, and paddy fields in a bullet train, and quite another to cross treacherous sea conditions from a country where trains are already inefficient, underfunded, and overpriced.
At a time where hospitals and care systems in the U.K. are straining under pressure and struggling for support, it seems inconceivable that such multi-billion-dollar projects could get the go-ahead. As engineering feats go, the bridges would be technically possible but still mind-boggling. To allow shipping to adequately pass beneath, Professor Wanda Lewis has claimed that an English Channel suspension bridge would need to be supported by pylons over 1,640-feet-tall—higher than the tallest bridge in the world, the Millau Viaduct. Alternatively, a mix of tunnels and bridges have been suggested to allow shipping to pass through the gaps with a series of artificial islands offering the possibility of offshore hotels and entertainment venues. With such speculative proposals, whether it’s Eugene Tsui’s Strait of Gibraltar Floating Bridge or Yona Friedman’s Bridge-Town over the Channel, science fiction never seems far away.
Yet the prospect of libertarian seasteading no doubt appeals to those who see Brexit as an opportunity to escape bureaucratic responsibilities and social contracts. And there is something about these colossal schemes that causes them to continually resurface. The idea of building a Bering Strait bridge and tunnel system, linking Alaska and Russia via the Diomede Islands, has survived from William Gilpin’s utopian Cosmopolitan Railway plan of 1890, which would have linked all the continents, right up to purported Chinese plans for an 8,000-mile-long railway in 2014.
Given the once unlikely success of the Channel Tunnel, no future plan for a Channel Bridge can be entirely discounted, yet the cost alone (estimated in excess of $170 billion) pushes it from the feasible to the fanciful. The Northern Ireland-Scotland bridge would be significantly cheaper but even the conservative estimate of $30 billion would be a struggle to justify. The very condition that it would seek to ameliorate Northern Ireland’s peripheral status in the UK would be used to dismiss it. Even with investment available, projects can stall in the face of political instabilities and economic downturns, like the Bridge of the Horns joining Djibouti and Yemen, and a Strait of Messina Bridge linking Sicily with the Italian mainland. One of the few certainties of Brexit is it has and will be turbulent.
So why propose such unlikely ventures? As with virtually any human endeavor, there’s an element of ego involved. After Thrasyllus of Mendes declared “that Caligula would no more be emperor than he would ride across the Gulf of Baiae on horseback,” the latter had a vast pontoon bridge built from sailing vessels tied together. Donning an oak crown and a golden cloak, he rode back and forth across the expanse for two days. Performance was and remains a crucial part of political power. Similarly, when the Persian king Xerxes’s initial bridges across the Dardanelles collapsed in a storm, he had the designers beheaded, the waterway attacked with red-hot pokers and whips, before tying boats together to create a dual bridge. The spectacular hubris involved in conquering nature can be precarious. Having built a bridge spanning the Danube for the Roman Emperor Trajan, Apollodorus of Damascus made the mistake of denigrating the next emperor Hadrian for his amateur architectural skills. He was executed and his bridge fell into ruins, part of which exists today; an example of what humanity was capable of and what it could lose.
Today, the most likely risk is a colossal waste of public money. Given the proponents of the bridges, the signs are not encouraging. Boris Johnson’s tenure as Mayor of London was most notable for a series of expensive follies, from the Boris Bus and the ArcelorMittal Orbit to the Garden Bridge and the equally ephemeral Boris Island. Meanwhile, previous pronouncements by Sammy Wilson have been less “blue sky thinking” and more ominous thunderclouds on the horizon, once commending an Ulster Defense Association (UDA) plan for ethnic cleansing in Northern Ireland as a “very valuable return to reality.”
The motivations of the bridge proposals seem most likely to be those of political expediency. Boris Johnson has been keen to assure that Brexit is not “some great V-sign from the cliffs of Dover,” downplaying the severance and its consequences he had helped bring about. A bridge, built or unbuilt, is a symbolic gesture in an ongoing campaign of botched diplomacy, with Johnson encountering gentle chastisements for mishandlings throughout his career that would likely have ended anyone else’s. Wilson and the DUP are struggling too with their Brexit victory. Knowing that there has been a surge in people applying for Irish passports, talk of Northern Ireland having a different status from the rest of the UK, and discussion of the eventual likelihood of a united Ireland, the DUP have been keen to reinforce the union with Britain. A bridge with Scotland would be seen as a consolidation of their position with considerable symbolic importance, not unlike Putin’s ongoing Kerch Strait Bridge in Crimea.
Having campaigned to break links with Europe (a majority in Northern Ireland nevertheless voted to remain in the E.U.), the DUP wish to create unbreakable physical links to the U.K. “mainland.” For their own political expediency—shifting power away from London with a potential “Celtic Powerhouse”—the Scottish government have made signals they are willing to discuss the idea. If the history of the U.K. shows us anything, from Partition to Brexit, it’s that just because an idea is problematic, even irrational, doesn’t mean it’s beyond enacting.
Perhaps there is something commendable in the fact that parties traditionally known for conservatism, even puritanism, are suddenly learning to dream of bold new futures. The danger, however, is twofold. First, failure of grand schemes brings about public disillusionment, even animosity to the ambitious projects we actually need, such as the extensive building of affordable homes in England or the neglect of Northern Irish infrastructure, historically perceived as sectarian-based discrimination, west of the River Bann. The costly failure of the London Garden Bridge (costing $65 million of public money), for example, makes it more difficult to propose a bridge in one of the many locations along the Thames that would genuinely benefit.
The second problem is more concerning. In dealing so much in vague speculative projects without adequate planning or consultation, there is a risk of leading politicians losing touch with reality. A hundred years of dystopian literature and films have provided humanity a healthy skepticism towards those promising utopian futures. Conservatives are not immune from this tendency. Whether it’s the result of naivety or cynicism, they too can believe in fictional golden ages, in pasts that never really existed or in long-lost positions of glory that can be recovered. The resurgence of a British imperial mentality during and after the Brexit vote marks a worrying departure from objectivity, whether it’s looking outwards with unrealistic visions of replacing trade with Europe with that of the Commonwealth, or an inflated self-regard that can be traced to an alarming increase in xenophobic attacks.
The danger in utopian thinking and departing from reality is that when inevitable difficulties arise and the promised utopia fails to manifest, excuses will be made and scapegoats will be singled out. This will also require inventing. What we will have won’t be a sense of momentum for a better society but a self-sustaining reaction. At a time when extraordinary imaginary bridges are being proposed, we would do well to take note of the walls that are going up around us.