The Guardian editorial upon inauguration of the Chunnel
Editorial: a snipped ribbon, and a sea-change
6 May 1994
British political life bristles with ephemeral wittering about Europe. Are we at the heart of it? Can we leave it? Is it moving towards us or we towards it? Most of these speculations are the thinnest of querulous fantasies. By contrast the Channel Tunnel is a hard, built-to-last, fact. And today is day one of our future.
Nothing in history has shaped the British more than insularity. Living on an island defines us. It gives us our sense of independence, our feeling of continuity, our awareness difference. But from today - or at least once normal service is at last established - we are no longer an island. The Channel divided us. The tunnel unites us. If ever there was a turning point in national psychology, then this surely is it.
It is not surprising, therefore, that few will cheer wildly when the Queen and President Mitterrand snip the tape later today. This is not one of those self-conscious agate moments in history - the multi-racial South African election or the Arab-Israeli handshake, for example. It isn’t a longed-for consummation. Life won’t change very much, very soon in Britain, France or the further corners of Europe. But a process begins from which there can be no return. The building of the tunnel is an expression of confidence in the perpetuity of European peace which would not have been imagined by our ancestors. Or, to put it more accurately, which was hastily rejected by our ancestors when they did imagine it.
Presented with the draft of an earlier tunnel scheme, Lord Palmerston dismissed it on the grounds that “it would shorten a distance we already find too short”. There are still some who fear that the tunnel epitomises a fundamental and threatening erosion of difference between the British and the nations of continental Europe. To such people the tunnel is Maastricht set literally in concrete, unwanted, unneeded and foisted upon us. But this is surely a nonsensical conceit. The British will remain British. Rabies, potato blight and the IRA may do their worst - but don’t count on it. If anyone has anything to fear from the tunnel it is probably the burghers of Calais, who have suffered long enough from our national addiction to cheap drink without having even more of us visited upon their historic but unlovely town.
The importance of the tunnel is both real and metaphysical. It is a means to an end, or rather to two ends; for us to get ourselves and our produce there, and for them and theirs to get here. The implications for infrastructure will multiply irresistibly, reprimanding us for our initial dilatoriness. In time we shall get the designated link to London and the refurbishment of rail lines to the north which ought to have been in place already today. But meanwhile Europe will creep ever more closely in on our minds. This is a two-way link. Paris for lunch for Londoners also means London for lunch for Parisians. And with every British journey closer to the heart of Europe, Europe gets closer to the heart of the British: with inexorable and hopeful consequences for us all.