Boris Johnson might as well have made this week’s announcement about the go-ahead for a £106 billion high-speed rail link wearing a silk cravat and a frock coat.
Here was a prime minister making grandiose promises to transform this nation through steel, just as his Victorian predecessors — Peel, Disraeli, Gladstone —had thrilled to iron.
All prime ministers share at least one ambition — an honourable mention by future historians. But they would do well to study what past historians have written before announcing their own plans for some brave new dawn.
For Boris Johnson, standing in his HS2 jacket and hard hat in Birmingham, the vision was irresistible: an England vibrating with new vigour and dynamism thanks largely to a transport network of trains racing through our sleepy countryside at speeds achieved by no other nation in Europe.
All prime ministers share at least one ambition — an honourable mention by future historians. Pictured: Boris Johnson as Isambard Kingdom Brunel
But hold on. Let’s look a little more closely at a couple of those great Victorian achievements. The great Brunel tunnel under the Thames in London’s dockland was the first of its kind in the world, but the venture ran out of money way before it was finished. So the taxpayer had to cough up. Sound familiar? Even then, there wasn’t enough to finance the ramps for the horse-drawn carts carrying cargo. A vital part of the project.
So someone had the bright idea of turning it into a visitor attraction. The tunnel became a fairground. According to the records, in 1852 they ‘launched the world’s first underground fairground . . . with sword swallowers, fire-eaters, magicians, tightrope walkers and Mr Green, the celebrated “bottle pantomimic equilibrist” ’.
Not quite the image we have of the Industrial Revolution.
Another great Victorian engineering triumph was the Menai Bridge. The world’s first iron suspension bridge, built over the deadly waters of the Menai Strait, opened to great fanfare in 1826. And then closed. And then opened again. And then . . . you get the picture.
Boris Johnson, standing in his HS2 jacket and hard hat in Birmingham, at the Curzon Street station where the rail project is under construction
It is not just that we romanticise the past. Much more dangerous is our failure to understand the future.
For the Victorians it was rail. For us it is digital and artificial intelligence. I remember chairing a telecoms conference where one of the leading figures in the industry predicted a time when we’d be able to carry our phones with us. Many heads were shaken in disbelief.
Yet a few years later, a senior engineer called a rival and told him he was speaking on a mobile phone. That was 1973. I have one of those early phones in a cupboard somewhere. It really is the size of a brick, but at least you couldn’t take selfies with it
The digital revolution has moved at a breath-taking speed and with every new development it moves exponentially faster.
Does Mr Johnson grasp the ways in which this, the fourth industrial revolution, will have changed this country in 20 years? Of course he doesn’t. Nobody does.
As the most powerful capitalists in the world were told in Davos a few months ago, this is a new chapter in human development. The ‘speed, breadth and depth of this revolution is forcing us to rethink how countries develop, how organisations create value and even what it means to be human’.
Let me make a stab at one possible change. Remember how, in the very early days of computers, we were told we’d all be working from home because there’d be no need to go into the office? It didn’t happen because things kept going wrong with our great clunky computers and, anyway, the whole concept was alien to us. Not any longer. Lives are contained within smartphones. Young people cannot imagine life without them. And AI will increase our dependence on digital technology in ways we cannot begin to imagine.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson talks with apprentices during a visit to Curzon Street railway station in Birmingham
But is it even remotely credible that in 20 years from now tens of millions of people will still be trudging off to the station, to commute at great cost and discomfort into a congested city to sit at a desk before a computer that is less powerful than the tiny chip that will have been implanted in their upper arms? The age of computing will surely displace the age of commuting.
And will the boss class still be able to justify their endless travelling at vast cost to attend so-called ‘conferences’ at luxury hotels, all expenses paid, when a word into their PCDI (Personal Communication Device Insert) will connect them with anyone they need to speak to or listen to. They won’t have to tell it — just think it. Telepathy made real.
Of course, it might take longer than 20 years to eradicate the human herd instinct completely — some people enjoy the office and most bosses enjoy staying in fancy hotels given half a chance — but the crucial point is they won’t have to.
We really will be able to work from home or in nice little office clusters nearby and still be in touch. Video conferencing will have been superseded by virtual reality. The future may sound soulless but this is the real brave new dawn.
There is nothing good to be said about commuting and office culture. What this new world will enable our children and grandchildren to do is restore those communities that have been destroyed by the curse of commuting.
It will restore the sense of place that has been lost to perpetual movement. Yes, perhaps the dying High Streets might yet be revitalised.
And we might even be able to start correcting one of the greatest sins of my generation: the disgraceful way we have treated old people who can no longer care for themselves.
My own childhood neighbourhood in Cardiff was scarred by poverty, but we understood the gift of neighbourliness. We knew each other. Relationships were not professionalised or sub-contracted to the State as they are now.
The way old people were cared for puts this generation to shame. My mother made me spend at least half an hour most days talking to the bed-ridden old lady a few doors down who lived alone. A tiny gesture. But priceless.
More than 60 years later I have several friends who live in London because that is where the jobs are. And they are racked with guilt because their ageing parents still live in their home towns 200 miles away and the best they can do is visit them in their wretched care homes for a few hours every other weekend. And worry about the shocking cost of it all.
This is what Boris Johnson should have said this week: ‘This nation will embark on a new chapter in our history that does not mean travelling ever faster to get somewhere we need not go.
‘We must not squander the nation’s wealth on vainglorious projects that will be obsolete when they are ready for use.
‘We must seize the opportunity offered to us by the new world of digital wizardry and artificial intelligence. We must embrace the fourth industrial revolution. We must rebuild our communities.
‘We must learn to be human again.’
The dawn chorus that gives us all hope
On May 19, 1942 a massive squadron of Wellingtons and Lancasters set out on a bombing raid over Mannheim in Germany.
As they approached the English coast, a team of BBC engineers were about to start broadcasting the dawn chorus from a garden in Surrey far below them.
They were ordered to keep recording but cancel the broadcast for fear that Nazi spies monitoring the airwaves would hear the planes and alert their defences. The BBC was right to be cautious. The bombers can indeed be heard on the surviving recording — but so can the dawn chorus of nightingales and blackbirds in full song. The beauty of it defies description. So does its symbolism.
I thought about it last week. I was in a taxi in Dublin driven by a retired policeman who had served on the border at the height of the troubles in Northern Ireland. I expected an angry conversation about politics and violence. Instead, we talked about songbirds.
He said when he was a small boy he’d uncovered a blackbird’s nest filled with eggs. When he went back the next day they’d been eaten by a predator. To this day he feels guilt.
I tried suggesting that nature allows for death and destruction. And I remembered the drone of those bombers being drowned out by the loveliest sound on earth.