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10 February 2020updated 09 Sep 2021 4:21pm

Boris Johnson knows his Scotland-Northern Ireland bridge is stupid – but the joke’s on us

The Prime Minister’s aim isn’t really to get anything done but shape the conversation.

By Jonn Elledge

Okay, so, stop me if you think you’ve heard this one before, but: Boris Johnson wants to build a bridge. According to the sorts of lobby stenographers who can be relied upon to accurately relay whatever it is our glorious Tory leaders are thinking about at any particular moment, as if that’s the entirety of their job, “work is underway” on a new fixed link between Scotland and Northern Ireland. “Underway”, in this case, means that some lucky soul in government has been lumbered with the job of putting together a “scoping report” – a document that basically examines if it’s possible and how much it would cost – not that cement mixers and men in hard hats carrying spirit levels are even now showing up in Stranraer.

So does this mean that such a bridge might one day actually happen? Well, there’s a lot more to say, about transport networks, engineering problems and political strategy, but if you want the short version: no. No, it does not. This bridge, I am quietly confident in predicting, will never, ever be built.

Some thoughts as to why.

This is a really stupid plan

To justify a construction project this expensive and this technically challenging (we’ll come back to that, you lucky people), you’d really want it to be something that a lot of people are going to use. That, in turn, probably means you want it to connect two very well-populated areas, which already have decent transport links to bring in people from the world beyond them.

This plan does not obviously qualify. Okay, at one end of the “bridge”, as I’m resisting the urge to refer to it, you’d be near Belfast, which is home to over half a million people and is the second-largest city on the island of Ireland. At the other end, though, you’re in the largely rural south-west of Scotland, a very long way from anywhere. Glasgow is over two hours away; Edinburgh and Newcastle more than three. It’s just not clear who this bridge is for.

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There’s a better place to put a fixed crossing between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, something you can see in the UK government’s ferry usage statistics. In 2017, the Cairnryan-Belfast ferry, which any bridge across the North Channel would be competing or replacing, took around 1.2 million passengers. That’s not bad – it’s the busiest domestic sea route, although it’s helped by relative paucity of competition – but it’s less than the 1.9 million who travelled from Dublin to Holyhead. 

There are other reasons the latter would make more sense. Dublin is roughly twice the size of Belfast, and better connected to other population centres across Ireland. A fixed link terminating at Holyhead would be well placed to get passengers from the M62 corridor and, via the West Coast Main Line, the West Midlands and London too. Most compellingly, Dublin-London is the second-busiest air route in the world, beaten only by Hong Kong-Taipei: build a tunnel here, connect it to HS2, and passengers would sign up for high-speed trains between Britain and Ireland in droves.

So why is the government opting for the less useful route? Partly perhaps because it’s shorter – around 25 miles, rather than nearly 70 – and so possibly more practical (although, again: see below). But partly also, one suspects, because Belfast is in the UK and Dublin isn’t, and this is meant to be our bridge, intended to remind the non-English bits of the Union that the government thinks it’s in their interests for them to stay in it. 

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No, really, this is stupid

We shouldn’t get too hung up on the idea that, just because it’s shorter, a Belfast-Stranraer link is in any way practical, however, because it almost certainly isn’t. 

When this idea first reared its head in 2018, James Duncan, an offshore engineer in Edinburgh, wrote to the Sunday Times to explain why. The water is deep, he noted, the weather stormy, and any bridge would require dozens of support towers taller than those built for other, actually existing bridges. To make matters worse, there are over a million tons of obsolete bombs at the bottom of the sea, waiting to blow up the minute anyone shows up with a pile driver. 

And so, wrote Duncan, a bridge here is “about as feasible as building a bridge to the moon”. Great stuff. 

The government almost certainly knows this

And yet, the idea keeps coming up as if it’s a real thing. Because, as so often with Boris Johnson, the purpose isn’t really to get anything done, but to shape the conversation. While we’re talking about this, we’re not paying attention to the details of the Brexit trade negotiations or the crumbling of the public realm. 

The phrase “dead cat strategy” has become over-used in political commentary, trotted out every time a minister screws up anything, as if politicians we don’t like are always Machiavellian masterminds and never simply incompetent. But I really feel like this is a very good example of a similar sort of thing. This bridge isn’t really about linking Northern Ireland and Scotland at all: it’s about signalling to those places that the government is thinking about them, and about taking up space that then can’t be used to talk about something else. They’re playing us.

Shouldn’t the PM get some new material?

Because we have been here before, haven’t we? We’ve visited this particular heap of bullshit rather a lot. The proposed bridge from the UK to France, which is never going to happen because it would strangle one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world. The Garden Bridge across the Thames in London, a “gift” to Londoners that managed to cost them over £43m without a single brick being laid. Boris Johnson loves talking about bridges.

The number of bridges he’s actually managed to get built, however, stands stubbornly at “nil”. In fact, when first elected mayor in 2008 he actually cancelled one, the Thames Gateway Bridge, which would have linked east and south east London, only to pop up with plans for a replacement, and also some more river crossings, shortly before his term expired.

At any rate: this bridge stuff is getting tired. Yes, I know they appeal to the PM’s sense of himself as a thrusting go-getter, rather than the bullshitter he actually is. Yes, I know “bridge” begins with “B” which makes it more likely he creates something that posterity upsettingly ends up being named after him. 

But – it’s a bit tired, isn’t it? A bit old hat? And if the PM’s going to propose things that are never going to happen anyway, why not do it properly? This bridge is about as practical as a bridge to the moon? Okay, then: a bridge to the moon we shall have. Just what this country needs to make it great again. Or better yet, a space elevator! Tip top.

Or if that isn’t doing it for you, perhaps his blondness could go further. The next step in the space race is a manned mission to Mars. Who better to take that step than the plucky British people on the cusp of their new golden age? Now we’re free of the shackles of the European Union, perhaps we should quit the European Space Agency too. A trade deal with Mars must surely be just around the corner.

And then, if the papers get tired of that, then, why not really go for it and promise to retake Calais? Few British traditions are more venerable than war with France, and hey, what harm can it do, eh?

I appreciate that these things are all a waste of time and money and are never going to happen, and that talking about them might make the world worse. But please, Prime Minister, I’m begging you: do something else. Talk about something else. Don’t make me write this column a fourth time.