HL Deb 24 January 1929 vol 72 cc788-95

LORD NEWTON had given Notice to ask whether His Majesty's Government will consider the advisability of approaching the French Government with a view to the appointment of a joint committee to examine the engineering and financial aspects of the projects already drawn up for the construction of a Channel tunnel. The noble Lord said: My Lords, I put this Question upon the Paper a few days ago at the request of my noble friend Lord Sydenham, who is a greater authority on this question than anybody else, but who is unfortunately prevented from being present this afternoon. In view of the declarations that have recently been made on the subject, any observations on my part appear to be somewhat superfluous at the moment, and I shall therefore detain the House for only a very few minutes.

There is one circumstance, however, in connection with this matter which strikes me and must have occurred to other persons. It appears to me that the advocates of the tunnel are disposed to look upon this enterprise as a purely British enterprise. It cannot be too emphatically pointed out that it is not a British enterprise, but a Franco-British enterprise, and I should have thought that the first thing to do would be to take the opinion of the French Government upon the question. The attitude of various French Governments and of the French people with regard to this enterprise compares, I am sorry to say, very favourably with our own. They have always treated it with great common sense and consideration of our feelings. They have respected the susceptibilities of the alarmists in this country and they have never gibed and jeered at the fears of that class which has been described as consisting of old women of both sexes. They have shown in this matter an amount of good sense and good feeling which unfortunately we have not imitated, and I doubt whether, in the whole history of an enterprise of this character, there has been an instance of a great work being successfully obstructed on such flimsy and insufficient grounds.

The chief landmark in connection with this matter is the Joint Committee of the two Houses which sat in 1883 under the chairmanship of the late Lord Lansdowne. The noble Marquess, as everybody present knows, was a man possessed of great common sense and of a judicial temper, and he was personally in favour of the tunnel being made, but he was outvoted by a majority of the Committee who were so impressed by the evidence of Lord Wolseley that they were induced to reject the scheme. That is an aberration easily accounted for by the fact that Lord Wolseley's evidence was given not long after his successful campaign in Egypt, and a successful General upon his return home is invariably looked upon as an infallible authority on any question which turns up. Lord Wolseley did not go so far as to contend that there were any serious military obstacles in defending a hole in the ground a few yards square, but he persuaded the Committee, and apparently Parliament too, into believing that in a time of profound peace a number of soldiers disguised as tourists would make their way over here and seize Dover.

I do not think I have any greater confidence in human nature than most of the noble Lords present this afternoon, but I find it almost impossible to believe that any such incident could take place at the present day. The only Government that I can conceive of perpetrating action of that kind would be the Bolshevist Government and the Bolsheviks, fortunately, are still far removed from Calais. If any unprincipled Government did entertain any scheme of this kind, surely it would be a more simple and more effective plan to send over a number of aeroplanes some night to lay London in ashes rather than to rely upon a scheme that might be upset by a vigilant ticket collector. The extraordinary thing is that this ridiculous objection taken by Lord Wolseley has actuated our policy for the last thirty years, and the absurdity of the suggestion has been demonstrated by Lord Sydenham over and over again, more especially in an address which he delivered to a number of members of both Houses just before the beginning of the Great War.

All the numerous Bills which were introduced in the 'eighties after the findings of the Lansdowne Commission were defeated upon this grotesque military objection. I do remember one case, however, in which the Bill was defeated in consequence of a speech made by Lord Randolph Churchill, in which he cast such ridicle upon the imaginary spectacle of a number of Cabinet Ministers sitting round a table and not being able to decide who should press the button, that the Bill was thrown out upon Second Reading. It is a remarkable instance of the power of ridicule but it did not say much for the common sense of the House of Commons of the day. If this kind of question were to be left to the judgment of military experts only, I have very little hesitation in saying that at the present moment every country in Europe would have its own railway gauge, that in all probability there would be no permanent bridges across the big rivers which separate nations, and certainly no tunnels under the Alps or the Pyrennees.

The misfortune in this case is that this question is looked at from this almost imbecile military point of view. Only the military point of view has been considered and the economic aspect practically neglected. Surely the right way to have proceeded in a matter of this kind was to ascertain first of all by independent inquiry in conjunction with the other Government concerned—namely, the French Government—whether the project is one which would be of distinct economic benefit to the two countries concerned. If the course which I suggest is carried out, and there is a joint inquiry conducted by independent persons we at all events shall be told once and for all whether there is any real advantage, economic or otherwise, in constructing the tunnel. We are told that the result will be to create almost unlimited prosperity in the case of both countries. These optimistic statements are of course made by persons strongly in favour of the tunnel, and therefore naturally prejudiced upon the subject. What is required—and that is, I take it, the object of the Prime Minister—is that there should be a full and independent inquiry. If it is shown that there is no prospects of the tunnel being successful economically, then the whole project falls to the ground; but if, on the other hand, it is satisfactorily proved that there are definite economic advantages to be derived from the construction of the tunnel, then the military experts can be called in to give their advice for as much as it is worth. All I have to say is that it is impossible in a matter of this kind to meet every imaginable con- tingency. If you are going to lay that down as an irrevocable condition, then it can be stated, without any doubt, that few great enterprises of a beneficial nature or otherwise would ever have been carried out.


My Lords, as a member of the Imperial Defence Committee in 1924 my only reason for intervening is this: speaking as one member of that Committee, the military circumstance did not enter into my calculations at all, and I heartily welcome what the noble Lord has said with regard to a joint investigation of this question of a Channel tunnel. I only hope that that investigation will bear upon two points: in the first instance, the point which influenced me most in that discussion, namely, whether the construction of a Channel tunnel is from the economic point of view worth while; and secondly, whether from an engineering point of view it is possible. I do not deny that engineers nowadays can build almost anything, but I remember very well certain figures put up to us at that time and they varied by something like this proportion—from £60,000,000 to £160,000,000. I do not know who is going to pay for this tunnel. If the Government are going to pay for it with a view to relieving unemployment, then I think myself, from the figures that I have seen so far, that they would spend their money better in another way. But if it is not the Government and there are a certain number of enterprising individuals who think that this is a good proposition—and I wish them good luck—all I can say is that, as a member of the public and as a possible shareholder, I should like to know a great deal more about the possibilities of this scheme from an engineering and a commercial point of view than I know already.

I wish that a Channel tunnel could be constructed, but I must confess that when I first heard the agitation on this subject I thought it was merely a sort of advertisement on the lines of the "Mustard Club." Now that it has become a serious question I do want to have it investigated on the lines that the noble Lord, Lord Newton, has suggested. Let us see whether it is from an economic point of view a good proposition, and, in order to do that, we must discover whether, from an engineering point of view, it is practicable. As I conceive the proposition it is that we should have a tunnel in the shape of a V, meeting at some point between here and France, and that at the bottom of that V there will be very steep gradients. I have read a book which describes how you could run a train at 150 miles an hour over that line. I wish the engine driver of that train all possible luck—and I am also thinking of the passengers!But, speaking for the Party to which I belong, and for every sensible person in this country, I do wish to support the proposition of the noble Lord, Lord Newton, and to say, let us have a thorough investigation into this subject. I myself thought that that investigation had been made already, but if it must be made again I would gladly support it.


My Lords, I do not know really that there is any question put to the Government which requires a reply, because my noble friend who sits behind me (Lord Newton) has merely said that he thoroughly approves of the decision at which the Government have arrived, and which the Prime Minister announced in another place, and the noble and gallant Lord opposite has re-echoed the satisfaction which my noble friend behind me signified. I admired the caution with which the noble and gallant Lord approached this question. I am not quite sure that I thought my noble friend behind me was equally cautious. I thought that considering the history of this question, he dismissed in rather a cavalier manner the objections which have hitherto been found to the tunnel.

Now I am very far from pronouncing an opinion, because I hold the rather old-fashioned notion that if a matter is going to be inquired into it is soon enough to pronounce an opinion when the inquiry is over. But I think I must deprecate the sort of language which my noble friend has used with regard to the very distinguished men who have held opinions adverse to the tunnel in times past. My noble friend probably is very familiar with this question. There have been at least four Inquiries into it, and it has been inquired into in the most solemn manner by the most important people of the time who were at the command of the public service. But it is not really necessary to go back further than the Inquiry of 1924, which took place while noble Lords opposite were in office. The noble and gallant Lord has just referred to it. He was a member of the Committee of Imperial Defence to whom the matter was referred. Your Lordships will remember that the then Prime Minister, Mr. Ramsay MacDonald, in order to prevent the Inquiry of that Committee from having any Party complexion, and in the desire that it might be an Inquiry of a national kind, asked representatives of the other Parties to join in the consideration by the Committee of Imperial Defence, and consequently Mr. Ramsay MacDonald invited Lord Balfour, Mr. Asquith, as he then was, Mr. Lloyd George, and my right hon. friend the present Prime Minister to join in the discussion. The matter was very thoroughly gone into, and, after the Committee had reported, there was a statement made in the House of Commons by the then Prime Minister.

Let the House realise that I am expressing no opinion whatever. My mind, as far as I can make it, is an absolute blank in respect of the decision which ought to be arrived at. But I would like to call my noble friend's attention to this remarkable passage, in order to show to him that everybody who took another view was neither absurd, nor grotesque, nor even imbecile—those were the adjectives which my noble friend used. This is what the then Prime Minister said:— I think that most of those present, like myself, had approached the subject with a certain predisposition in favour of the Channel tunnel. When the evidence came to be discussed, however, it was found that everyone had been forced to an opposite conclusion. I am pronouncing no opinion, but it is not likely, I think, that either Lord Balfour or Mr. Asquith, or Mr. Lloyd George, or Mr. Baldwin, not to speak of the most distinguished representatives of the Labour Government, was either grotesque, or absurd, or imbecile.


They have changed their opinion now.


They may have; I do not know. The noble Lord knows more than I do. And therefore I rather deprecate the kind of language which he used in approaching what ought to be a perfectly calm, im- partial, and judicial inquiry. Not only am I very glad that this Inquiry has been ordered, but I think it is really called for by recent developments and improvements in various directions. There are changes in the circumstances strategically, there are changes in the circumstances economically, and I suspect there are changes in the circumstances from an engineering point of view. All these matters should be very carefully inquired into, and that is the intention of the Government. When that Inquiry—which I hope will be of the same strictly impartial, non-party character as the last—is concluded, I hope that the country will be in a position to arrive at a definite conclusion.


Might I ask the noble Marquess a question with reference to what was said in another place. I think the proposal was to adopt the form of procedure that Mr. Ramsay MacDonald adopted in 1924. Was that Mr. Baldwin's suggestion?


My right hon. friend announced that he was going to invite the Leaders of the other Parties to join in the Inquiry; but as to the particular form which the Inquiry was to take that was not yet decided. It is a matter of considerable difficulty to arrive at the very best form of Committee.


Hear, hear.


All that has yet to be dealt with in detail.