On Sunday inventor-entrepreneur James Dyson added his voice to the much-needed debate on planning in the UK. Writing in support of a new Thames Hub airport for London (“Boris Island“) he laments “we have lost the ambition and vision of our Victorian ancestors. We prefer to bury our head in the sand rather than to sink new foundations.”
Superstar architect Lord (Norman) Foster, mastermind of the Thames Hub (and hardly a stick-in-the-mud), also turned to Victorian antecedents: “We need to recapture the foresight and political courage of our 19th Century forebears to establish a modern transport and energy infrastructure in Britain for this century and beyond.”
A Telegraph leader the same week kept up the refrain: “it is refreshing – in these uncertain economic times – to see ambition reminiscent of Britain’s Victorian heyday. It needs to be matched by the politicians at Westminster.”
It’s good to see the Thames Hub gaining traction in the comment sections of the UK press. This scheme ignites imaginations and gets people talking: in time, Whitehall will wake up.
Also remarkable is the writers’ use of ‘Victorian’ as shorthand for dynamism, ambition and progress. As long as I remember, ‘Victorian’ was a term of derision. To speak of ‘Victorian Values’ was to summon up a cruel world of urchins up chimneys, stovepipe-hatted hypocrites and money-grabbing Gradgrinds. ‘Victorian’ meant the Bad Past.
I’m not one to get sentimental about the good old days. On this, as so much else, P.J. O’Rourke sums up my view:
“In general, life is better than it has ever been, and if you think that, in the past, there was some golden age of pleasure and plenty to which you would, if you were able, transport yourself, let me say one single word: “dentistry”
Oral hygiene aside – and without getting all Life Of Brian – the Victorians did more to create our modern world than people in any other era. Their advances in engineering and science speak for themselves. But we can also thank their moralising zeal and self-belief for mass democracy, mass education and gigantic public health programmes.
The Victorians thought big. To have any hope of maintaining, and improving, our quality of life we need to do the same. As James Dyson concludes: “We need to revive the thinking on a grand scale that characterised the Victorian age of invention”