[Header Image: Courtesy of Highways England]
By the end of business in Parliament on Tuesday [5 June 2018] Transport Secretary Chis Grayling could have been forgiven for feeling as if he had been run over by those proverbial London buses. You know, the three which come along at the same time when you have been waiting ages for just one. Less than twenty four hours after a monstering on the floor of the House of Commons over the botched introduction of the new national railway timetables, Mr Grayling was back at the dispatch box to announce that the government wanted to build the third runway at Heathrow airport. A project which has been festering in the Department for Transport in-tray since the Wright Brothers announced to the world that they had invented an interesting new way of getting from A to B and trashing the environment at the same time.
Fortunately for Mr Grayling, who, it is alleged cruelly, sometimes suffers from dillusions of adequacy, he was not forced to end his difficult afternoon by taking to the floor of Westminster Hall to stand in front of the third bus. This particular homicidal Routemaster was the backbench debate about that other transport infrastructure project which has also been the recurring nightmare of generations of Secretaries of State for Transport, the proposed A303 tunnel and upgrade to bypass Stonehenge.
Actually Mr Grayling was absent only because Westminster Hall debates are not set up as a showcase for the oratorical skills, and talent for evasive maneuvering, of cabinet ministers, but are designed instead to enable back bench MP’s to raise issues of concern which might not otherwise receive a full debate in Parliament. Issues such as Tuesday’s topic the “Stonehenge: Proposed Road Alterations”
Appropriately for a plan which is designed to allow white vans, and other road vehicles, to reach Cornwall twenty minutes faster, the debate about the Stonehenge World Heritage Site was led by Alex Burghart, the Member of Parliament for the mythical home of White Van Man, the Essex constituency of Brentwood and Ongar.
Mr Burghart began his speech listing, not just the reservations of the archaeological community about the Highways England proposals for the A303 at the Stonehenge World Heritage Site landscape, and the names of many of the archaeologists who oppose it. Remarkably, he also cited, perhaps for the first time in any Parliamentary debate, lyrics from the seminal 1980’s Rock classic “This Is Spinal Tap.”
“Stonehenge! Tis a magic place”
sang Mr Burghart [or at least, he did in front of his bathroom mirror as he practiced his speech],
“No one knows who they were or what they were doing”.*
*These are also understood to be the strap lines for the next English Heritage advertising campaign inviting tourists to visit to their famous car park and cafe with Prehistoric World Heritage Site attached.
Curiously Mr Burghart also began with an apology that he, an MP for a constituency in Essex, was initiating a debate about a road scheme miles away in Wiltshire. A road scheme which crosses constituencies represented by several of his Conservative colleagues. However, it soon became clear why he felt the need to apologise for taking on the task of ensuring the concerns of many independent archaeologists and United Nations cultural body UNESCO about the A303 scheme were written into the Parliamentary record, Hansard, thus setting up a future debate along the lines of, “We told you so.”
That reason was none of the Wiltshire MPs present was going to risk losing any local votes by opposing the Highways England tunnel plan. To them, this was a local roads issue to do with making faster trips to Tesco and facilitating the school run, and it was nothing to do with anyone else; least of all archaeologists, UNESCO and certainly not a parliamentary colleague from the Home Counties.
Consequently, Mr Burghart found himself receiving a verbal kicking from a number of his fellow back benchers in the kind of Blue on Blue action in which the Conservative Party seems to specialise and excel these days [and this wasn’t even a debate about Brexit].
James Gray, MP for North Wiltshire and self-confessed medievalist, was particularly cruel as he observed that while Mr Burghart understood how damage to the waterlogged archaeology of Star Carr indicated a threat to the site at Blick Mead, he clearly did not understand, and by inference did not care, about the misery endured by local people and tourists on the sclerotic roads of Wiltshire. Mr Gray then doubled down, suggesting that Tim Loughton, another fellow Conservative MP with an interest in archaeological issues, who had offered some support to his colleague from Essex, should buy a map, the better to understand the geography of the debatable lands west of London.
As for the other members speaking in support of the Department for Transport and Highways England, their contributions can also be summed up with another quote from “This is Spinal Tap.”
Referencing the alacrity with which Dr Andrew Murrison [South West Wiltshire] and Steve Double [St Austall and Newquay] endorsed the Party line that the Stonehenge tunnel and dual carriageways across the World Heritage Site were the best development in UK road transport since Ug the caveman had consulted a focus group and consequently re-marketed his wheels as round instead of square, the two MPs might as well have said,
“I believe virtually everything I read, and I think that is what makes me more of a selective human than someone who doesn’t believe anything.”
Of course, as anyone who has watched “This Is Spinal Tap” knows, and as Mr Burghart might have meant anyone watching or reading the debate to remember, Spinal Tap’s staging of their epic, prog rock masterpiece, “Stonehenge” was ruined in the end by a poor planning decision.
Lead guitarist and poetic visionary songwriter Nigel Tufnel handed over to the roadies a drawing for a Stonehenge stage set which mistakenly carried measurements in inches not feet. The result was a reproduction of the Stonehenge stones which looked like a footstool and risked being crushed by one of the band of gambolling, flute playing, dwarfs representing the dawn of time.
We do not yet know if the engineers at Highways England have made a similar mistake and the Stonehenge tunnel has actually been designed to accommodate Mr Grayling’s office Scalextric set, but in Westminster Hall the debate ended with junior minister Jesse Norman appearing most pleased to have apparently scored a political point by calling the Labour Party’s support for the A303 upgrade into doubt.
Mr Norman gave the distinct impression that this was a piece of information which would play well in West County constituencies along the A303 corridor when Theresa May, or her successor, is forced to call another snap General Election in the Autumn to satnav a grateful nation out of the current shambolic Brexit impasse.
However, Mr Norman also found time to imply that, like Spinal Tap bass player Derek Smalls, the opponents of the Stonehenge Tunnel were really,
“… just making much too big a thing out of it.”
In the film Smalls replies to that suggestion with a comment with which many in the archaeological world might sympathise as it wrestles with its own demons over which future for the World Heritage landscape to endorse,
“Making a big thing out of it would have been a good idea.” [Preferably a big thing, with a full archaeological investigation and detailed discussions with UNESCO, before the A303 plan was decided unilaterally by the Government and put out to consultation].
It is rumoured in Whitehall that somewhere deep in the Department for Transport is a secret chill out room for stressed ministers. On Tuesday, as the debate in Westminster Hall came to an inconclusive end, Chris Grayling awoke there in a cold sweat from his latest nightmare. Just as evil King Richard III had seen his victims file through his tent on the night before meeting his death at the Battle of Bosworth, Chris Grayling had watched horrified as all his predecessors as Transport Secretary had filed past the leather upholstered chill out room couch, picked up the UNESCO report about Stonehenge, emitted a silent scream and spontaneously combusted like a Spinal Tap drummer.
Just then his PPS knocked gently on the door and, in an echo of another scene from Rob Reiner’s film, asked,
“Can I raise a practical question at this point? Are we gonna do “Stonehenge” tomorrow?
At which point Mr Grayling’s brain exploded and the Secretary of State grabbed the hapless MP by the throat, pinning him against the cushioned wall, hissing the immortal words of Spinal Tap’s charismatic front man David St Hubbins,
*NO*, we’re not gonna fucking do “Stonehenge”!